The Florida House took a major step toward ending a decades-old monopoly enjoyed by traditional print newspapers across the state.
Lawmakers in a 68-44 vote backed a bill that would give local governments more flexibility in choosing publications to advertise public notices, something required by current law.
The bill (HB 1235) would allow government entities to publish the notices in online-only publications if it is expected to reduce costs. In a fiscally constrained county, agencies would have to discern whether there is enough internet access in the county and if the idea is in the public’s interest before switching to online ads.
The bill is part of a unique legislative food fight that pits new media publications against traditional papers. New media has been giving newspapers a run for the money since 2012, when state lawmakers first turned back a Republican-backed measure to move legal notices of foreclosures from print to the internet, thereby breaking some form of exclusivity.
This year’s House plan, sponsored by Rep. Randy Fine, likely won’t move in the Senate, meaning it won’t become law this time around. Still, lawmakers have come a long way in addressing the monopoly.
Critics have argued that the measure would undermine the free press.
“This bill helps the free press,” said Fine, a Palm Bay Republican, on the House floor. “I have news for you: a free press that requires government subsidies to stay around is not a free press; it’s a subsidized press.”
Because the bill offers more local discretion, it’s backed by home rule proponents.
“The reality is that if you’re into home rule, which I am, my cities don’t feel the necessity for this in this day and age,” said Democratic state Rep. Richard Stark.
Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Danny McAuliffe, Jacob Ogles, Drew Wilson, Jim Rosica and Peter Schorsch.
But first, the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:
The Florida connection — The highly anticipated release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is in part tied to Florida. The report said in addition to hacking Democratic campaign servers, Russian military (GRU) hackers specifically went after Florida election systems. “In November 2016, the GRU sent spearphishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. election,” the report reads. The report did not name the county, nor did it corroborate a separate FBI investigation that also found a county’s information had been compromised. The News Service of Florida later reported that the Department of State, which oversees Florida’s elections, was unable to verify the alleged breach.
Senate aligns with House on health, higher ed — With only two weeks remaining in the regular 2019 Legislative Session, the Senate this week appeared to concede to some of the House’s priorities on higher education and health care. A daylong Appropriations Committee hearing this week resulted in some last-minute changes to bills moving through the Senate. Among them, reports The News Service, “proposals on the; certificate of need’ regulatory process, telehealth and prescription-drug importation programs — all issues that are priorities of House Speaker José Oliva.” As well, the Senate adopted House language to bring more oversight of funding for university construction projects. Education funding overall still remains a sticking point between the two chambers as budget conferences loom. Those conferences are expected to start sometime early next week.
House passes abortion change — The House this week backed a controversial proposal that would require minors seeking abortions to obtain parental consent ahead of the procedure. The bill passed mostly along party lines in a 66-44 vote, with anti-abortion Republicans coming out in force. Should it become law, the bill could spark a legal challenge. The state Supreme Court struck down a similar requirement in 1989. The House measure (HB 1335) is sponsored by state Rep. Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican. A similar bill in the Senate has cleared just one of its three committee stops, a bad sign for the measure’s chances across the chamber.
Oliva moves firefighter issue — A bill expanding cancer coverage and benefits to firefighters started moving through the House this week after reports alleging that Speaker Oliva had blocked the bill for political reasons. “The debate this year, as in past years, was never against firefighters nor was it political,” Oliva said in a statement released this week. The bill surfaced in and easily cleared the House State Affairs Committee Thursday. A similar provision is ready for the Senate floor. “I can assure you that contrary to what has been reported, our firefighters and first responders are a priority to House leadership and Speaker Oliva,” said Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, chair of the State Affairs Committee.
Criminal justice reform takes shape — Two different plans that would overhaul the state’s criminal justice system are ready for floor consideration in the House and Senate. The Senate bill, dubbed the “Florida First Step Act,” is a nod to a similarly named federal package backed by President Donald Trump last year. Like its national counterpart, the bill would give judges discretion in sentencing some criminals charged with drug crimes that carry mandatory minimums. But that provision is absent from the House plan, which also doesn’t include Senate language regarding the same time-served threshold and retroactive application of a mandatory minimum change the state made in 2016. Both plans, however, focus on providing more re-entry services to inmates and seek to reduce occupational licensing barriers for former convicts.
DeSantis recruits legal aid for military members
Gov. Ron DeSantis recently launched the Governor’s Initiative on Lawyers Assisting Warriors (GI LAW).
“Men and women in uniform will receive free legal counsel in a variety of civil manners, including actions in local courts,” a news release from DeSantis’ office said.
DeSantis, a Navy veteran himself, enlisted four of the state’s top law firms to help provide pro bono services to military members. Greenberg Traurig, Holland & Knight, Shutts & Bowen and Gunster will participate.
“I’m proud to be able to lead this remarkable effort to provide our active duty service members free legal services from some of the best law firms in our state,” DeSantis said. “This is a big win for our service members and our military here in Florida and I commend all those involved for their commitment to our military.”
Moody marks first 100 days
Attorney General Ashley Moody took a first 100 days victory lap this week, trumpeting that she was “already delivering on campaign promises.”
“The Attorney General’s Office is taking swift action to combat the national opioid crisis, consumer fraud, human trafficking and to support Florida’s law enforcement community,” a statement from her office said.
I vow to continue to approach this job every day with a sense of urgency and passion for protecting the vulnerable, prosecuting criminals and defending the rule of law. #first100dayshttps://t.co/ZmNhAaTcMM pic.twitter.com/KA6TvUZaq2
— Fla. AG Ashley Moody (@AGAshleyMoody) April 17, 2019
As Moody put it, “There are still a lot of challenges before us, and I vow to continue to approach this job every day with a sense of urgency and passion for protecting the vulnerable, prosecuting criminals and defending the rule of law.”
“Combating the National Opioid Crisis that is claiming 17 lives a day in Florida remains a top priority,” the release said.
Among her other accomplishments: Creating a Senior Protection Team, organizing a Consumer Alert program, and recovering “millions from sham charities exploiting veterans.”
For the full list, click here.
Instagram of the Week
House criminal justice bill earns praise
A bill making a slew of changes to Florida’s criminal code cleared the House Appropriations Committee this week, earning the chamber a salute from the Alliance for Safety and Justice.
HB 7125 would, among other things, bump to the felony theft threshold from $300 to $1,000, lower penalties for certain drug crimes and establish community court programs to divert low-level offenders from the criminal justice system.
“We applaud the Florida House Appropriations Committee for passing smart policies that advance safety and justice, and support crime survivors’ access to victim compensation,” said ASJ Vice President Robert Brooks. “Effective public safety policies that focus on prevention, workforce development and recovery services for survivors, like those in HB 7125, are a priority to make us all safer.
“We support House leadership, Judiciary Chair [Paul] Renner, and Appropriations Chair [Travis] Cummings in their continued advancement of important safety reforms.”
ASJ and other organizations, such as the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, have made a heavy push for reforms to lower recidivism, improve crime victim resources and help ex-convicts land jobs after release.
The House bill is now ready for a floor vote. A similar package, SB 642, is moving through the Senate.
Houston, we have a resolution
Lawmakers often vote down party lines in the Florida House.
But this week they all agreed: Congress should establish the United States Space Force in Florida.
Rep. Tyler Sirois, a Cocoa Republican, successfully corralled the House around his resolution calling on Congress to bring the Space Force to the Sunshine State. Trump proposed creating the new branch of the military, but Congress has yet to sign off.
“Within Brevard County, on Florida’s Space Coast, we have the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Naval Ordinance Testing Unit at Port Canaveral, and Patrick Air Force Base — home of the 45th Space Wing,” Sirois said.
While delivering a floor speech, Sirois invited Trump to personally scope out Brevard’s space infrastructure and workforce.
“We have a robust and growing commercial aerospace sector that promotes a culture of innovation and agility,” Sirois wrote to Trump. “We have a civilian workforce highly skilled in avionics, advanced manufacturing and modeling, simulation and training.”
Police drones clear House
With unanimous support, a bill once thought to be controversial by civil liberties advocates passed the House Wednesday.
HB 75 allows law enforcement to use drones to survey traffic accidents, to collect evidence at a crime scene, and to assist in crowd control.
Bill sponsor state Rep. Clay Yarborough, a Jacksonville Republican in his second term, has been a drone proponent since coming to Tallahassee.
The Florida Police Chiefs and Florida League of Cities supported the bill from its filing, but some House Democrats had to be assured on the committee level that the use of drones didn’t equate to an erosion of civil liberties.
Drones currently can be used by law enforcement in emergency situations, but the Yarborough bill will expand the technology to more routine uses.
The Senate version has one more committee stop before a floor vote.
Longtime Senate staffer Brown retiring
Wallace Brown, a longtime member of the Senate Professional Staff, retires later this year after nearly three decades of service to the Senate.
Brown “has been the unofficial Senate Chaplain for many years,” spokeswoman Katie Betta told us. He is a deacon at his home church in Havana, Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist, where he has been a member for over 60 years.
“In addition to frequently leading the prayer in the Chamber, he also leads the Senate Professional Staff in prayer at various events throughout the year. He is a counselor and confidante for many members of the staff.”
His first time offering a floor session’s opening prayer was under President John McKay, Betta said, and he recalls leading the prayer the most times under President Don Gaetz.
In December, current President Bill Galvano appointed Brown to represent the Senate on the Florida Faith-based and Community-based Advisory Council.
He also prepared a prayer for the Senate that was buried in a time capsule in the Chamber by President Andy Gardiner during the chamber’s 2016 renovation.
Brown, a U.S. military veteran stationed overseas for several years, is the youngest of 15 children, Betta said.
“He has a large family and is very dedicated to his children and grandchildren, as well as his siblings and their families,” she said. His wife died a few years ago.
“We are so pleased to have such a dedicated man of faith representing the Senate in this important role,” Galvano said during a floor session this week. “We hope he will come back and lead us in prayer after he retires.”
Film industry gets Senate shoutout
Lawmakers may have passed on substantial film legislation this year, but the Senate wants to let the industry know that they care.
SB 1808 by Sen. Annette Taddeo cleared its second committee this week and is prepped for a vote on the Senate floor. It’s only a resolution, so there’s no grant money or tax breaks tied to it, but it does offer a decent pep talk — the Florida TaxWatch study recommending lawmakers pass film legislation even gets a nod.
“The Senate encourages the continued collaboration of both public-sector and private-sector efforts to develop programs and partnerships related to film and television production,” the resolution says.
“The Senate supports and encourages the Florida Office of Film and Entertainment as it continues to promote such partnerships, including national and international collaborative programs, in its national and international marketing efforts.”
The 2019 film bill cleared a couple of committees earlier this Session but has since stalled out. Still, the conversation shifted compared to prior years, so there Florida’s film industry may finally score a win next year.
American Heart Association: Snuff out smoking bill
A bill that’s drawn heat for putting the kibosh on plastic straw bans has a new enemy: the American Heart Association.
HB 1299 is a wide-ranging local government bill. In addition to straws, it would block local rules on nursing home generators and regulations on over-the-counter drugs and some cosmetics. It would also keep cities and counties from bumping up the age for tobacco sales.
That’s where AHA draws the line.
“House Bill 1299 would make it impossible for local communities to pass laws that would help protect children from tobacco and nicotine addiction,” said Mark Landreth, the association’s government relations director. “Big Tobacco spends more than $600 million to target children in our state.
“This is about our communities, our health and our voices, and when states block communities from passing common-sense laws that protect their citizens, there are consequences. In this case, the victims will sadly be a new generation of Floridians struggling with the burden of tobacco addiction.”
HB 1299 cleared its final committee stop Thursday and is ready for the chamber floor. A Senate bill (SB 1618) that would raise the smoking age to 21 statewide has its last committee hearing Tuesday.
Tech showcased in Tally
Flight simulators and virtual reality platforms welcomed guests at Technology Day at the Capitol earlier this week.
The Florida Technology Council and Harris Corporation sponsored the event to exhibit tech advancements in the private sector and in educational institutions.
James Taylor, CEO of the Florida Technology Council, told the Capitol News Service that STEM education is critical for Florida.
“We simply need to have STEM education be taught in a way that students can step into those jobs and I am happy to say we are headed down that path now,” Taylor told News Service reporter Jake Stofan
Sen. Jeff Brandes and Rep. James Grant — both outspoken tech advocates — were on hand for a morning news conference. The two discussed tech’s role in Florida’s ever-expanding economy.
Later Thursday, Brandes’ bill (SB 932) to authorize autonomous vehicle pilot programs cleared its final committee stop.
Suits for Session boasts healthy haul
Suits for Session collected 5,769 women’s and men’s clothing items during its recent donation drive.
The effort, a Capitol tradition, will benefit victims of Hurricane Michael. The clothing will be made available to Panhandle residents looking to re-enter the workforce six months after the Cat 5 storm swept through the Northwest portion of the state.
The professional attire will be donated to groups like CareerSource Florida chapters in the Big Bend and Panhandle regions.
Suits for Session raised almost 40 percent more than last year. More women’s items were collected than men’s items.
Clay Ingram, a former lawmaker and current CEO of Volunteer Florida, said his agency is “overwhelmed by the generosity.”
“Under normal circumstances, dressing appropriately for job interviews ensures a sense of confidence, but for the people of the panhandle — those who lost so much, if not everything, to Hurricane Michael — these donations also represent hope and the promise of a new beginning,” Ingram added.
Speaking of suits — Seersucker Day!
FWC, partners aim to get Leon County outdoors
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and partners invite Tallahassee and Leon County residents to participate in the upcoming City Nature Challenge, which will take place from Friday, April 26, through Monday, April 29.
Approximately 170 communities around the world will compete in this event to see which city can record the largest number of plant and animal species.
“We are very excited to host the City Nature Challenge in Tallahassee and Leon County,” said Thomas Eason, Assistant Executive Director of the FWC.
“We hope that this event will inspire members of the public to spend more time enjoying our area’s wonderful natural spaces year-round.”
The Tallahassee/Leon County City Nature Challenge and related events are free and open to all ages. Get instructions on how to participate and view the full schedule of events at MyFWC.com/CNC.
Open for business
A new mobile-friendly app is showing residents which local businesses are back up and running in Mexico Beach, where Hurricane Michael made landfall Oct. 10.
The #NeverForgottenCoast campaign launched “What’s Open: Mexico Beach” this week.
“The road to recovery will be very long, but Mexico Beach businesses are more determined than ever to get back up and running,” said Alex Workman, Never Forgotten Coast co-founder.
Notably, the app also will help visitors looking to spend time in the coastal destination.
“By visiting the city, even for just a few hours, you can spend money at local businesses to help economic recovery, and you can learn about other ways to be a part of the solution for getting this community back on its feet,” Workman added.
It’s April 20, observed by many as a day to celebrate marijuana.
As comedian Jimmy Kimmel once quipped: “It’s the day on which people, who already smoke pot almost every day, smoke it again.”
We asked some of the marijuana advocates around the state if anything’s going on for the unofficial holiday.
We got answers like Dab Days in Miami. The South Florida expo starts at 2 p.m. Saturday and will feature educational speakers, dispensaries and even some live “glassblowing.”
Toward the evening, My Florida Green invites “patients and their guests” for a live comedy show at Wahoo River Bar in Naples.
At the 5F Farm in Quincy, the Gadsden Reggae and Blues festival is happening. Unlike the previous two events, this one doesn’t carry a pot theme and is branded as a family-friendly event.