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Senate begins discussing school safety bill

The Florida Senate on Saturday began its consideration of a school safety bill in response to the Valentine’s Day deadly shooting at Broward County’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Senate President-designate Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, presented the latest version of the bill (SB 7026), a summary of which is below.

He was still taking questions from fellow senators by late morning, before the chamber dealt with over 100 amendments, most from Democrats.

The new measure, among other things, now creates a felony for threatening to commit a mass shooting, offers a $500 stipend to teachers who choose to carry a gun at school, and outlaws the possession of “bump stocks,” which make semi-automatic rifles fire at the rate of an automatic.

There still is no assault rifles ban—Galvano said it would raise constitutional concerns, and not just the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.

What raised a red flag with Galvano, he said, was the Florida Constitution’s right to privacy provision, and how a ban could conflict with that.

The legislation, called the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act,” does include a 3-day waiting period – with some exceptions –to buy any firearm; a waiting period now applies only to handguns.

It also raises the age to purchase all firearms in Florida from 18 to 21.

The bill creates a commission to make recommendations on school safety. It “will have teeth,” Galvano said, including subpoena power. Its first meeting could be as early as this June.

Senate passes PTSD benefits for first responders

Without debate, the Florida Senate on Saturday unanimously passed a bill to expand workers’ compensation benefits to first responders who suffer job-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

The measure (SB 376) was among several added to a rare weekend sitting to handle pending school safety legislation. That’s in response to last month’s deadly shooting at Broward County’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The 33-0 vote sends the first responders bill, carried by Democratic Sen. Lauren Book, to the House. A similar companion measure (HB 227) there also is ready for a vote.

The legislation is a priority of Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, also the state’s Fire Marshal.

“The stories we’ve heard over the past few months from first responders, their families and loved ones have been stories of strength that propelled this measure forward,” he said in a Saturday statement.

“Today we approach the finish line and are one step closer to ensuring first responders get access to the mental health benefits they deserve,” Patronis added.

The Florida League of Cities previously dropped its opposition to the proposal; because cities and counties in Florida employ almost all first responders, they will incur almost all of the costs of the benefit.

Tom Lee ‘fed up’ with Joe Negron, top down leadership

An embittered Sen. Tom Lee on Friday said the Legislature’s rank and file is “getting crumbs” from leadership and “they’re fed up about it.”

Senate President Joe Negron later countered he’s “proud of the process,” saying “everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

Lee had disagreed with a provision in the House’s big education bill (HB 7055) and offered an amendment to soften union decertification language that critics have called union-busting. The amendment went down on a 19-19 tie.

After the floor session, Lee – a Thonotosassa Republican expected to run for Chief Financial Officer this year – vented with reporters, bemoaning the top-down leadership on both sides of the Capitol rotunda.

“I’ve never seen this place get so transactional, where people are getting locked down on votes, and we’re just getting going here,” said Lee, who was Senate President in 2004-06. “You’re going to have a gun bill that law enforcement’s against, the NRA’s against … members from rural districts are in a headlock because they’re being instructed to vote for it.

“I’ve just had enough … I’ve struggled to get things out of this institution … and it’s petty and I am fed up,” he said. “I didn’t come up here to get bullied; I didn’t come up here to ‘follow directions.’ I came to represent my constituents.”

“It was entertaining political theater,” Senate budget chairman Rob Bradley told POLITICO after Lee’s outburst. “It was totally devoid of facts and detached from reality, but it was entertaining.”

Lee is an ally of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, but earlier on the floor had said the union-related provision was “punitive.”

Naples Republican Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, the sponsor of the Senate bill, told POLITICO she took “umbrage with being called ‘mean-spirited and ‘punitive.'”

“What’s broken about this process? Is it term limits? Is it political committees? I am just done with these people and the way they run this institution. It’s like a third world country,” Lee told reporters.

Negron, a Stuart Republican, also met with reporters later Friday, growing increasingly piqued when asked about Lee’s concerns.

“I’m spending my time” on considering good legislation “as opposed to getting all caught up in home and away football analogies,” he said. “Who’s winning, who’s losing, who has more bills. I’m interested in (the question): Are we making life better for Floridians?

“… There are two competing narratives, and they both can’t be true,” Negron said. “One is that I’m not tough enough on people, I’m not aggressive enough, and the other is I’m running everything from the top down. I’ll actually take that all as a compliment that I’m right in the middle.

“I’m proud of the way the Senate is running right now,” he added. “Bills are being considered; the budget is being put together in a timely way. It’s refreshing to hear criticism that I run things with too heavy a hand because I’ve had criticism the other way.”

The 2018 Legislative Session is scheduled to end next Friday.

Senate will meet Saturday to consider school safety bill

In a rare move, the Senate will meet on Saturday to consider school safety legislation.

With the Session clock ticking down, Senate President Joe Negron announced the weekend sitting on Friday morning in a memo to fellow senators. The 2018 Legislative Session is scheduled to end next Friday.

A floor session is planned for 10 a.m.-1 p.m. to hear the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act (SB 7026).

Senate President-designate Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican working on the bill, “informed me that he would like to temporarily postpone consideration of Senate Bill 7026 today to allow additional time to work on this important issue,” Negron wrote.

“As you may be aware, after the 58th day of Session (March 7), the House may only consider returning messages, conference reports and concurrent resolutions,” Negron said. “I do not want to delay consideration of Senate Bill 7026 until next week, possibly affecting the House’s ability to hear the Senate Bill.

“Holding a sitting on Saturday is the best option for both working within our existing rules and affording this legislation the serious time and consideration it deserves,” he added.

“As previously planned, the bill would be heard on Third Reading and available for a final vote on Monday, March 5, 2018.

“My goal is to ensure the Senate has ample time to consider this important bill.”

Asked the last time the body met on a Saturday, Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said she checked with the chamber’s longest-serving staff member, Deputy Secretary of the Senate Gary McKenzie.

“He did not immediately recall a Saturday sitting scheduled during a Regular Session,” she said. “There have, however, been many cases where session extended into Saturday, and also when a sitting during a special session occurred on a Saturday. There have also been committee meetings scheduled for Saturdays.”

School safety, prisons draw budget attention

Florida lawmakers continued budget negotiations Thursday night, trying to find $400 million for a school-safety initiative and money to deal with costly litigation targeting the state prison system.

After striking a deal on local property taxes, the House and Senate have agreed to spend $21.1 billion on public schools in the 2018-2019 academic year, which would represent about a $100 increase per student.

But they are still trying to allocate that funding while accommodating a $400 million school-safety package, prompted by the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Broward County high school.

An offer early Thursday evening by the House would provide $67.2 million for mental-health services in the public schools, as well as $162 million for the “safe schools” program, which provides funding for school resource officers and other security measures. The safe schools program currently receives $64.5 million a year.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who is leading the House negotiations on public school funding, said those numbers reflect the ongoing talks between House and Senate leaders on a school-safety package, which is scheduled to be taken up Friday by the Senate.

But at the same time, he said lawmakers have had to adjust funding for other education initiatives. For instance, the new House offer proposed spending $45.3 million on classroom supplies for teachers, down from a $63 million initial offer from the Senate.

“Whenever you spend $400 million somewhere, you’re going to cause some issues. We’re trying to work through this,” Diaz said.

The cost of the school-safety initiatives as well as other recent impacts on the state budget, including a decline in projected corporate income-tax collections and higher Medicaid costs, are impacting other areas of the proposed $87 billion-plus budget.

On Thursday, the Senate backed off a proposal that sought $345 million in state performance funding for the university system, agreeing with the House to leave it at $245 million, which is the current level. Negotiators also agreed on $30 million in state performance funding for the 28 state colleges, which is also the current level.

In the prison system, lawmakers are having to respond to legal settlements in cases alleging prisoners are not receiving adequate treatment for infectious diseases, mental health issues and disabilities.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who is leading the Senate negotiations on civil and criminal justice issues, estimated the new budget will contain about $100 million in response to those legal mandates involving the Department of Corrections.

Lawmakers agreed Thursday to immediately spend $21 million on treatment for prisoners with hepatitis C, an infectious disease that may affect as many as one out of every five prisoners in the system. Treatment can cost as much as $37,000 for a 12-week regimen.

Additionally, the House proposed spending $19.2 million on the treatment during the upcoming 2018-2019 fiscal year, with the Senate offering $15 million.

The House and Senate agreed Thursday to spend another $42.6 million on mental-health treatment, including hiring 289 people.

Lawmakers are also in agreement on spending more than $6 million to care for disabled prisoners under a court settlement that came after advocates alleged the state was discriminating against prisoners who were deaf, blind or confined to wheelchairs.

Despite the overall challenges, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley of Fleming Island said the budget negotiations remain on target for a final deal by Tuesday, which will allow lawmakers to vote on the spending plan on March 9, the last day of the 2018 session.

“We’re having great communications. It’s been a very smooth process,” Bradley said.

In negotiations on agriculture and natural-resources issues, Wauchula Republican Rep. Ben Albritton said lawmakers have agreed to set aside $50 million for the state’s natural springs and $50 million for beach renourishment.

The chambers remain apart on issues such as water projects and the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. The House has proposed $50 million for the federal dike project.

The two sides have also settled at $500,000 for bear-resistant trash containers and $110 million for a petroleum tank clean-up program administered by the Department of Environmental Protection.

In health-care negotiations, House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo of Miami said the distribution of Medicaid dollars to Florida’s hospitals is “one of the big areas of the budget that is left to be negotiated.”

The Senate wants to replace an existing system that favors safety-net facilities that serve a greater percentage of poor and disabled patients with a plan that would increase base Medicaid payments for all hospitals.

“We are much more sympathetic to the safety nets that provide exceptional amounts of indigent care,” Trujillo said. “The Senate is not. So, we are working toward that end of really protecting the safety nets.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers agreed to direct $10 million to provide “transition” payments for nursing homes that will be adversely affected by a new payment system, which the Legislature approved last year and goes into effect in the upcoming year.

“We’re very grateful the Legislature recognized that we needed some transitional help,” said Emmett Reed, executive director of the Florida Health Care Association, a statewide nursing-home group. “It’s huge.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Joe Henderson: Maybe Senate should have asked Adam Putnam first

Say this for Adam Putnam: he knows how to get attention.

He put out a terse news release Wednesday, ripping a state Senate proposal to use $10 million from the concealed weapons license fee to reimburse trauma centers for costs related to the Parkland murders.

It was kind of a “get off my lawn” moment for the normally affable Agriculture Commissioner, who also is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

“I oppose taxing law-abiding concealed weapon licensees for atrocities carried out by criminals. If anyone should be taxed for those heinous acts, it should be criminals,” the release read.

“The monster who murdered 17 people in Parkland wasn’t even eligible to have a concealed weapon license.”

Putnam’s objection about taxpayers is a bit of a reach, starting with the fact that law-abiding citizens he referred to aren’t being taxed. They voluntarily paid a fee for the right to carry a concealed weapon.

And while we all agree what happened in Parkland qualifies as an atrocity, it’s not like the reimbursement would be going to some wild-eyed anti-gun lobby. It would be going to help cover costs of treating victims of the aforementioned atrocity.

It is true, though, that the confessed shooter in Parkland isn’t old enough to have the license. In Florida, the minimum age is 21 for the permit. He was old enough to legally purchase the AR-15 assault-style rifle used in the attack, but I digress.

The point is, the horror unleashed that day – 17 dead, 14 wounded – pushed local hospitals to the limit. That’s what led Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens to propose the reimbursement fund, which would be administered by Attorney General’s office.

Senate President Joe Negron supported the idea, and SB 1876 was born. It passed an appropriations committee vote 17-3.

On the surface, using a portion of that gun fee in this way seemed reasonable. First-time Florida applicants pay $97 for the permit, which includes $55 for fingerprinting. Renewals cost $45.

It is good for seven years.

However, Jennifer Meale, communications director for the agriculture department, said in an email, “The primary purpose of the licensing fees is to mange and operate the concealed weapon license program. All application and renewal fees are dedicated to the licensing trust fund.”

Translation: That money already has a purpose.

In fairness, the right thing to do for those pushing for this bill would have been to check with Putnam before going public.

This sounds like the Agriculture Commissioner is telling the Senate to keep its mitts out of his money pot without talking to him first, no matter how well-meaning the proposal might be.

He has a point.

Parkland meets Pulse, uniting in grief, anger and frustration

Survivors, family, and community members battered but not beaten by Florida’s two great recent tragedies met in Orlando Wednesday at Pulse nightclub, uniting in their grief, anger, determination and a frustration over how things do or do not change.

A busload of Parkland community members, including families of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, came to pay their respects at the Pulse nightclub, and to share in their experiences both of and following the mass shootings of Feb. 14, 2018, and June 12, 2016.

These are not happy groups, but they were joyful to meet one another Wednesday, in the company of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and former state Sen. Jeremy Ring, two Democratic politicians as closely affected by the massacres as any. Dyer oversaw much of Orlando’s response, coming out of it Orlando United. Ring is a Parkland resident, running for Florida Chief Financial Officer, with his campaign temporarily suspended since the school shooting.

The group, part of the much larger contingent that spent the past week in Tallahassee seeking legislative responses to the Douglas High School shooting, was not put together for any ideological positions, but at Pulse Wednesday their anger and frustration appeared widespread: angry that their community suffered another shooting, frustrated that many believe the Florida Legislature let them down.

Kim Bankoff of Weston, mother of three children in the school district, said many of the families who went to Tallahassee were generally pleased and some even excited by the proposals that Legislature leaders laid out to them Monday. Then, she said, hours later, in the middle of the night, they learned of the amendments coming in, and much of the support many felt was replaced by jadedness.

“Pass this or not we need to recognize this does not go far enough,” she said.

Ring, who spent much of the time with the group in Tallahassee and traveled separately to Orlando Wednesday, said of most of the members of the group, ‘They’re ticked off. They’re not happy.”

Ring said Bankoff’s frustration was caused because members of the Florida House had explained their bill Monday night and then changed it, making the Parkland community members feel deceived.

“I’ve seen that countless times,” Ring said. “The other thing that frustrated them that the Florida Senate in a, I don’t know how long, seven hours? meeting, somehow ran out of time. And I’ve seen that countless times.”

He said he understands the processes and politics, but the desperate families who came to Tallahassee were caught completely off-guard, and left aghast.

The 25 or so Parkland community members who came to Pulse met with about a dozen Pulse survivors and family.  Up until a few days ago they would have been able to make an intimate visit to what had become a makeshift shrine to what, until the Las Vegas massacre last summer, had been the country’s worst mass murder in recent history. But they had to get together outside a new, eight-foot, mostly-tarped fence surrounding the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a barrier erected only last weekend to allow for construction of an interim memorial.

 As both Parkland and Pulse community members placed single white roses into the fence, Luciel Tschumy, an LGBTQ transgender female activist from Broward County, read the names of the 49 people murdered at Pulse, punctuating her reading with anger for the lives cut short. “We’re standing here putting 49 roses. We shouldn’t have to freakin’ be here!” she exclaimed.

Margate Elementary School teacher Monique Wilson read a poem she wrote expressing deep frustration and anger. “Honestly America? What’s a parent to do, when a child is stripped from you?” she read. “So much change is needed, America, we’ve needed it for such a long time.”

Dyer sought to unite the groups, and pledged Orlando’s support. “We love you. We feel your pain. We want to do everything that we can to help you,” he said.

House, Senate agree on major school funding issue

Lawmakers continued negotiations Wednesday on a new $87 billion-plus state budget, after reaching agreement on several major issues, including a funding plan for public schools.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said the Senate has agreed with the House on how to use local property taxes to help fund the 67 school districts. The House had objected to using an increase in the local taxes, known as the “required local effort,” that came as a result of higher property values.

Under the agreement, the Senate and House will use increases in local tax collections related to newly constructed homes and businesses. But they will lower the tax rate on existing properties to offset potential tax increases caused by higher values of those properties.

The net effect will be a funding plan close to what the House originally advanced, using $192 million in local taxes combined with $315 million in state funding for a $507 million overall increase in the school funding formula. It resulted in a $100 increase in per-student funding in a statewide system that includes 2.8 million students.

Bradley and House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican, said the fatal shootings this month of 17 students and staff members at a Parkland high school have changed the dynamic of reaching an agreement on a state budget for 2018-2019.

One direct result is that lawmakers have agreed to put $400 million toward helping Florida schools with issues such as mental-health services and more security. That financial priority, coupled with a decline in projected corporate income-tax collections and a higher demand for Medicaid services, has tightened the budget process.

Trujillo and Bradley said it will mean fewer projects for House and Senate members in the annual budget bill.

“It’s necessary, because there are more important things at stake,” Bradley said. “There is no price we can put on the safety of our children.”

The new dynamic has also resulted in the Senate moving toward the House on using unspent money in various trust funds to pay for other programs and initiatives.

The original House proposal shifted, or “swept,” nearly $400 million out of the trust funds, including $182 million out of affordable housing programs. The Senate’s budget bill only swept $124 million and did not touch the housing funds.

Bradley said the new budget demands have changed the Senate’s position.

“Because of Parkland, we’ve swept a lot of trust funds,” Bradley said. “And affordable housing, there just isn’t enough money there to maintain the Senate’s position of not sweeping that fund.”

The new budget reality will also impact Gov. Rick Scott’s priorities, including his call for $180 million in tax and fee cuts.

“We’re willing to help and deliver as much as we can, but I think all of our priorities have refocused (after Parkland),” Trujillo said.

Lawmakers have tentatively agreed on an $80 million tax-cut package, which could include more sales-tax “holidays” and few other measures.

Lawmakers are also moving toward agreement on $76 million for Visit Florida, the state’s main tourism promotion agency, although Scott has asked for $100 million.

The final budget is expected to include Scott’s request for $85 million to replenish the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, an economic development program initially approved last year.

“Several months ago, I had some concerns about the governor’s fund,” Bradley said. “But he’s demonstrated, (Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director) Cissy Proctor, they’ve demonstrated those funds are being spent wisely. The state taxpayers are getting a greater (return on investment) on it. We couldn’t be happier as a Senate. It’s going to get funded this year.”

The fund has attracted more than 225 applications seeking more than $821 million. Scott has allocated a little more than $35 million, including $6 million for a 1.5-mile access road at Cecil Commerce Center in Jacksonville and $8.25 million to expand access to the cruise and cargo terminals at Port Canaveral.

Over the next few days, House and Senate members will meet in a series of conference committees trying to work out the details of spending in education, health care, criminal justice, the environment and other areas of the state budget.

Unresolved issues will move to Trujillo and Bradley on Friday, with any issues unresolved by the chairmen eventually moving to House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican, and Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

Lawmakers have until Tuesday to work out a budget if they hope to end the annual Session on time March 9. The state has a constitutional 72-hour waiting period before lawmakers can take final budget votes. The new budget will take effect July 1.

Save the ‘sporks’? Amendment yanked from Senate veggie garden bill

A broad amendment to the Senate vegetable garden bill that would have preempted local ordinances that ban plastic straws, or really any plastic utensils, was withdrawn Wednesday after facing scrutiny.

“I am going after the paper straws,” Sen. Rob Bradley said.

The powerful state senator and sponsor of the bill (SB 1776) filed the utensil amendment two hours before the Senate brought the vegetable garden bill up for debate.

“My wife has started a little garden, how would your amendment on straws impact her garden?” said Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat.

Bradley said it would not affect it and that “freedom would reign in the Thurston household.”

But after concerns were raised on the amendment, Bradley pulled it from consideration and asked to push his vegetable garden bill to third reading.

Without the straw amendment, the bill would only preempt local bans on vegetable gardens.

“The Legislature intends to encourage the development of sustainable cultivation of vegetable and fruits at all levels of production, including for personal consumption, as an important interest of the state,” the bill states.

If passed, the proposal would make local ordinances regulating vegetable gardens on residential properties “void and unenforceable.”

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.

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