Florida leaders are abroad and in tow are some reporters, including one of our own.
Gov. Ron DeSantis will travel Saturday to Israel and will be joined there by a more-than-90-person delegation comprised of civic and business leaders for a packed itinerary that begins Sunday in Tel Aviv.
The trip is a historic excursion designed to further strengthen Florida’s business and political relationships with Israel.
Through next Friday, DeSantis will meet with Israeli companies and officials, including a Thursday afternoon meeting with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A ceremonial meeting of the Florida Cabinet will take place Wednesday afternoon. (Keep in mind, Israel time is seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.)
Concerns regarding government in the sunshine have been voiced because so many state leaders would be concentrated overseas next week. So far, it appears only a handful of journalists are tagging along.
We’re excited to announce that A.G. Gancarski, a political writer for Florida Politics who reports from Jacksonville, will be providing coverage throughout the week from Israel. Follow his stories online and make sure to check #FlaPolGoesToIsrael on Twitter for updates.
As well, abroad coverage will be coming from other statewide political reporters like USA Today’s Jeff Schweers and Bay News 9’s Troy Kinsey.
“The hope is to provide comprehensive coverage of the Cabinet on what is a historic trip to Israel,” Gancarski said. “From business development meetings to a meeting with PM Benjamin Netanyahu, this is one of the most audacious plays made by a state delegation.
“We will have interviews with the major players, and the hope is that readers will feel that they are there as a week of major events transpires.”
Federal relief takes shape – The U.S. Senate this week approved a disaster-spending plan that includes $19 billion for Puerto Rico and states still reeling from recent storms, floods and other natural disasters. POLITICO reported after the bill had been approved that the House is expected to back the plan in June when it returns from Memorial Day recess. “The disaster relief bill was most eagerly sought by Trump’s GOP allies in states such as Georgia, Florida, Iowa and Nebraska,” The Associated Press reported from Washington. Florida lawmakers during the 2019 Legislative Session routinely criticized Congress for failing to pass timely aid for victims of Hurricane Michael, the Category 5 storm that touched down in Mexico Beach last October.
DeSantis prompts election review – Gov. DeSantis this week directed the Department of State to evaluate election security just eight days after the FBI disclosed to state officials that Russian hackers successfully breached two counties’ election data ahead of the 2016 election. The order directs Florida’s Chief Election Officer and Secretary of State Laurel Lee to make the review a top priority and “identify and address any vulnerabilities.” Officials with knowledge of the breaches entered into nondisclosure agreements with the FBI that prevent them from revealing the names of the two counties that were hacked. But The Washington Post reported last week that Washington County in the Panhandle is among the two counties from which Russians successfully accessed information.
AOB reform signed into law – As expected, Gov. DeSantis this week signed into law sweeping insurance legislation targeting lawsuit abuse. The bill provides for tighter restrictions on assignment of benefits — or AOB — agreements. The new law establishes a formula for attorneys fee compensation for contractors who file lawsuits against insurance companies in AOB disputes. It also limits to $3,000 work that can be performed by contractors who enter into emergency AOB agreements, among other changes that have been heralded by business groups, insurance companies and lawmakers who have faulted increased AOB lawsuits for rising insurance costs. “I thank the Florida Legislature for passing meaningful AOB reform, which has become a racket in recent years,” DeSantis said in a statement. “This legislation will protect Florida consumers from predatory insurance practices.”
Fried targets trade – Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried weighed in this week on two federal trade matters that are impacting or could affect Florida farmers. Following Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to Jacksonville to tout the benefits of a proposed NAFTA revamp, Fried criticized the federal plan, known as the USMCA, for not protecting Florida seasonal crop growers. “In a state that depends on agriculture, we can’t afford a trade agreement that allows Mexico to continue dumping artificially low-priced seasonal crops into our country,” Fried said. “Mexico’s unfair trade practices and lower safety standards and labor costs are putting Florida’s seasonal crop growers at risk.” Fried, a Democrat, also requested President Donald Trump work to remove timber tariffs imposed by the Chinese and protect the timber industry from tariffs during Trump’s ongoing trade war with China.
Florida icon passes away – Florida State University President Emeritus Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte died this week at the age of 85. His death prompted many to remember the former lawmaker and former American Bar Association President for his contributions to the state and its legal system. Memorial services have been announced for D’Alemberte, who had at one point also served as the FSU law school dean. A service will take place Wednesday, June 5, at 2 p.m. in Ruby Diamond Concert Hall, 222 S. Copeland St, Tallahassee. Visitation will take place 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, June 4, at the D’Alemberte Rotunda, FSU College of Law, 425 W. Jefferson St., also in Tallahassee.
Irma home repair a success
Robert and Stacie Bark have made progress toward returning to normalcy almost two years after Hurricane Irma wrecked the Palm Bay couple’s home.
Gov. DeSantis announced this week that Rebuild Florida had completed the significant roof damage and window repairs needed at the Bark residence.
“Getting people back into their homes is a critical step to this process and I thank DEO and the Rebuild Florida team for working hard to assist thousands of Floridians as they rebuild, repair or replace their homes,” DeSantis said in a statement.
Rebuild Florida operates out of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO). The program recruits federal dollars to help low-income and vulnerable Floridians fix their homes after disasters.
“Rebuild Florida got a hold of me by some miracle and walked me through every step of the process to receive assistance,” Robert Bark said in a statement. “I’m very grateful for the program and thankful to have a new roof over our heads.”
Infrastructure grants heading to rural counties
This week, Gov. DeSantis announced a suite of DEO grants that are on their way to Florida communities.
Measuring in at $1.6 million in all, the grants are targeted at projects that will make an immediate impact in small towns across the state.
“Infrastructure development and maintenance are critical for rural communities to become more resilient,” DeSantis said. “We will continue to help these communities as they prepare for the future by utilizing every resource we have.”
The bulk of the cash, about $1 million, will be used to expand an existing water treatment plan in Columbia County.
Another $316,499 will head to the town of Jennings to purchase a new 25,000-gallon aeration tank, $150,000 will go to RiverWay South Apalachicola Choctawhatchee for tourism and economic development strategies and $100,000 will go to the town of Greenville for a feasibility study to suss out whether existing structures can sustain a new grocery store.
“Under Governor DeSantis’ leadership, DEO stands ready to utilize every resource available to assist rural communities and help them achieve their economic goals,” said DEO head Ken Lawson. “We look forward to seeing the great work these communities accomplish and how they continue to grow their economies.”
Fried names May ‘Veteran of the Month’
Agriculture Commissioner Fried named Ryan McKibben the Veteran of the Month for May, recognizing McKibben’s decade of service in the military and his contributions to agriculture since returning to the States.
McKibben completed two combat tours with the Army in Iraq. He currently is part of the Veterans Florida Agriculture Program and is interning at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“From rehabilitation programs to our new Veterans Affairs Director, and helping connect veterans with agricultural and career and training opportunities, we’re doing our part to support Florida’s veterans,” Fried said in a prepared statement. “As Memorial Day approaches, I want to extend my deep appreciation for the service of the millions of Americans and Floridians who have sacrificed to defend our freedoms and protect our communities.”
Jeremy Sinnemaki, entrepreneurship and agriculture director at Veterans Florida, said McKibben is “a tremendous example of the contributions that veterans make to the agriculture industry.”
McKibben is a graduate of Florida State University, where he was active in veterans-focused groups.
Feds honor two Florida schools for environmental focus
Two Florida schools are included among 35 other educational institutions honored this week for efforts to reduce energy costs, improve health and promote sustainability.
The schools: MAST Academy in Miami-Dade County, which wants to become the first net zero energy and zero waste school in Florida, and FAU Lab School District in Palm Beach County, home to a well-known orchid restoration program and unique research opportunities.
The Florida schools were recognized as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s “Green Ribbon Program,” which assesses schools nationwide based on environmental impact and energy efficiency, healthy school environments and environmental and sustainability education.
“We have a responsibility to instill in future generations a deep commitment to protecting our precious natural resources,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a prepared statement. “I applaud MAST Academy and FAU Lab School District for implementing policies and initiatives that ensure students understand the role we each play in maintaining a healthy environment for future generations.”
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein noted the importance of preparing students to act as environmental stewards.
“It is exciting to see two Florida schools in the national spotlight for their dedication to sustaining and enhancing Florida’s natural resources,” Valenstein said.
Bench perspective on Supreme Court makeover
Justice Jorge Labarga doesn’t think much has changed with three new conservative legal minds on the high court.
During a brief media availability ahead of a recent Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice meeting, Labarga told reporters that “discussions certainly haven’t changed since before or after” Gov. DeSantis appointed Justices Barbara Lagoa, Robert Luck and Carlos Muniz to the bench.
But those appointments replaced Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince — often considered a liberal-leaning wing of the court.
“I’m very close friends with all the justices that were there before; I’m close friends with the justices there now,” Labarga said. “I believe that everybody is doing what they feel the oath requires them to do: To look at the law as they see it and rule based on that.”
Already, reversals and other court decisions are showing how the Supreme Court has been reshaped within the past few months.
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Mass shooting shots get records exemption
A bill that would block the release of photos and videos of deaths in mass violence incidents got a signature from Gov. DeSantis this week.
The bill was a priority of Orlando state Rep. Kamia Brown, who has backed it three years running.
“Horrific incidents of mass violence such as the Pulse shooting in Orlando where 49 people lost their lives are happening more frequently in today’s society. This bill will provide an additional public exemption for the depictions of these tragedies, the state should never be the source of anguish caused by the videos or pictures of the tragic death of a loved one,” she said.
“The pictures and recordings cause great emotional distress, sorrow, and irreversible trauma. It is imperative that we protect families from needlessly reliving heartbreak and loss, but most importantly preserve the dignity of those lost due to egregious acts of violence.”
The new law expands a current public records exemption to victims of mass violence, defined as an event where three or more individuals are killed.
The law also allows for those seeking for the release of photos or recordings to petition for a court order to do so. Notably, it does not apply to private recordings of mass shootings, which have often found their way onto social media after an attack.
Tech-related bills signed into law
Two pieces of legislation designed to complement the Information Age were signed into law this week.
One bill (SB 1024) creates a working group to explore blockchain’s viability for state use. Blockchain is the digital ledger technology behind transactions for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, requires the task force be created sometime this year. It would send a report to state leaders within 180 days of its first meeting.
Another bill (SB 1136) signed into law seeks to protect a person’s expectation of privacy when they share a “sexually explicit image” online with another person.
As it relates to sexual cyberharassment, “Evidence that the depicted person sent a sexually explicit image to another person does not, on its own, remove his or her reasonable expectation of privacy for that image,” the bill reads.
Hurricane Michael victims to receive homeownership loan assistance
The Florida Housing Finance Coalition this week began rolling out two programs designed to benefit homeowners caught in Hurricane Michael’s wrath.
The Homeownership Loan Program (HLP) will make available 30-year fixed mortgage rates and up to $15,000 in down-payment assistance to home buyers. The down-payment loans will “be at zero percent interest, non-amortizing and forgivable at 20 percent per year over five years,” a news release from Gov. DeSantis’ office said. Homebuyers within 140 percent of the area median income could be eligible.
The other initiative, The Homeownership Pool Program, recruits $1 million in federal funds to help new single-family homebuyers. Each buyer under the program is eligible for $35,000 in down payment and closing cost assistance loans. Only applicants within 80 percent of the area median income can be eligible. These loans are zero-percent interest, non-amortizing and due on sale, refinance or non-owner occupancy.
Both programs are expected to officially launch in early June.
DeSantis in a statement said that he asked the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, which will administer the programs, to come up with solutions to affordable housing issues created by Hurricane Michael, the Category 5 storm that swept through Northwest Florida last October.
“These homeownership and down payment assistance programs will help the rebuilding of these Panhandle communities and for families to achieve the American Dream affordably,” said Trey Price, executive director of the Florida Housing Finance Corporation.
Florida Chamber grades lawmakers
The Florida Chamber on Tuesday released the “2019 Legislative Report Card,” giving a letter score from A to F to state lawmakers based on their votes during Session, which ended earlier in May.
The annual score sheet — a frequent practice among groups looking to influence lawmakers — shows how the priorities of the Florida Chamber, a massive business-advocacy organization, fared during Session.
Lawmakers did pretty well from the Chamber’s perspective. The average GPA this year is just more than 79 percent. Ninety-eight lawmakers earned an A or B and 59 members earned a C, D or F.
As a pro-business organization, the Chamber often aligns with Republican initiatives. Take for example Senate President Bill Galvano’s high-profile toll roads legislation. The Chamber heavily supported that bill, which kickstarts funding for three major highway projects in the state, because it believes the roadways will cater to Florida’s growing population.
While the Chamber isn’t a partisan organization, the grades somewhat tracked along party lines.
That trend didn’t go unnoticed.
Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani, of Orlando, acknowledged her “F” grade on Twitter as if it were a progressive badge of honor.
CareerSource Florida chief recognized as top workforce development professional
The 2019 Toni Jennings Workforce Development Professional of the Year designation is going to CareerSource Florida President and CEO Michelle Dennard to recognize Dennard’s dedication to economic development.
Dennard is an attorney with more than a decade of experience in workforce development. In 2017, she took over CareerSource Florida — which partners with agencies like the Department of Economic Opportunity to connect in-state businesses with Florida talent.
The Florida Economic Development Council presented Dennard with the award during its annual conference. Council executive director Beth Cicchetti called Dennard “an outstanding leader and partner, who exemplifies the tradition of exceptional leadership in advancing economic development through her vision for creating strategies, leveraging partnerships and driving significant investments in workforce development.”
“I often say I have the best job in Florida,” Dennard said. “I am privileged to support our innovative, engaged board of directors, contribute to the exemplary work of our professional team and see firsthand the meaningful outcomes resulting from the efforts of the many dedicated workforce professionals across the state.”
Chamber praises expert witness ruling
The Florida Chamber of Commerce is pointing the Florida Supreme Court’s approval of a stronger expert witness standard as a sign that times have changed for the better on the high court.
Justices this week upheld the Daubert standard, “eliminating junk science from Florida’s court,” a Chamber news release said. The Supreme Court in 2017 blocked the switch to the more-restrictive standard than the Frye standard already in place.
Chamber vice president David Hart called the Supreme Court decision “an important step forward” toward bettering legal climate for businesses.
The Chamber news release went a step further.
“The Florida Chamber-backed Daubert standard, was passed by the Florida Legislature in 2013,” the news release said. “However, former activist Supreme Court justices refused to adopt the Daubert standard into the Florida Evidence Code.”
The news release also suggested the court’s walk back on the standard is “a significant departure from the previous court and signals a court that may help end Florida’s reign as a ‘judicial hellhole.’”
WTXL ditches mugshots
The ABC television affiliate in Tallahassee this week announced it will no longer boast a “mugshots” page on its website beginning Monday.
It’s not an easy decision to make: “The booking report was a mainstay on our website for years. For much of that time, it had its own section titled “Mugshots,” and was usually in our top-5 most visited pages on the website,” WTXL General Manager Matt Brown wrote in an article that detailed the move.
But the choice to remove the “mugshots” coverage is something that many media minds have encouraged in recent years. Corey Hutchins for the Columbia Journalism Review wrote last year that “some media ethics specialists argue that newsrooms should contextualize such images for readers, articulate the public-service value of disseminating them, and pursue the stories of their subjects after the photos are taken.”
Brown of WTXL wrote that he believed the station is “pandering to lurid curiosity” and “not showing compassion for those affected by news coverage” by simply posting mugshots.
“As journalists covering news in the Florida panhandle and southern Georgia, we can do better in meeting our code of ethics and your expectations for news,” Brown added.
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