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Takeaways from Tallahassee — Lifesaving cash

Tabitha Shannon’s bonus was a lifesaver. Literally.

Lifesaving cash

In a $90 billion-plus budget, it’s easy for a few million dollars to be viewed as inconsequential. But for some caseworkers at the Department of Juvenile Justice, it’s everything.

The average contracted caseworker at DJJ makes about $20,000 a year. It’s a rough job, and the low pay has led to high turnover rates.

To keep some veteran workers on the job, lawmakers set aside $2 million for contract worker bonuses in the 2018-19 budget, which equated to a couple of thousand dollars in extra pay for those working on the front lines with at-risk youth.

For Tabitha Shannon, the money was a lifesaver. Literally.

The bonus check arrived just as doctors told her husband that his heart was failing; without bypass surgery, he wouldn’t live much longer. Standing between him and the operating room was an unpaid medical debt.

Casey DeSantis and DJJ Secretary Simone Marstiller have made headway in helping -risk youth and those that serve them. Many hope for continued funding.

“I said to myself as I looked up to the sky, ‘God we need a miracle,’” Shannon recalled.

Fortunately, the miracle came and the surgery was scheduled. Today, Shannon’s husband is “doing amazing.”

“It was given at the right time and in the right moment. We never know what a person is going through in their personal life, especially when they still come to work with a smile on their face,” she said.

Lawmakers also set aside about $750,000 for bonuses in the current budget. Those checks went out just a few weeks ago, so data isn’t in on how they’ve impacted staff turnover rates.

But the bonuses sent out in 2018 appear to have made an impact. Shannon is still a direct care worker contracted with DJJ, and, according to a DJJ report, nearly three-quarters of the 989 workers who received a bonus at the end of 2018 are still on the job.

Many, including Christian Minor of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, are hoping lawmakers include more money for bonuses when they hash out the 2020-21 budget this spring.

“Staff turnover and retainment is an issue both the Department of Juvenile Justice and its contracted partners have grappled with for a long time. Direct-care staff plays a critical role in a child’s development and rehabilitation. It’s a difficult job in which starting pay is around $20,500 a year, a dangerously low number for the cumbersome nature of the work,” Minor said.

“Led by Chairmen Rob Bradley, Jeff Brandes, Travis Cummings and Clay Yarborough, this report reflects positively on the Legislature’s efforts to invest in ‘direct care’ staff working on the front lines with our at-risk youth through a significant reduction in turnover rates. This reduction in turnover saves taxpayer dollars, promotes public safety, and ensures we retain staff who are invested in and committed to our children and their futures.

“The Governor and First Lady Casey DeSantis, as well as Secretary Simone Marstiller, should be applauded for their continued commitment to working with the Legislature on these issues facing Florida’s at-risk youth and those that serve them.”

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Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Peter Schorsch, Drew Wilson and the staff of Florida Politics.

But first, the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Take 5

Graduation rate rises — Gov. DeSantis announced Florida’s graduation rate for 2018-2019 increased to 86.9 %, an increase of 0.8 percentage points over last year, and a jump of 27.7 percentage points since 2003-04. “While these results are a positive mark of Florida’s upward progress, we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent,” he said. We must continue striving for educational excellence and making Florida the No. 1 state in the nation for education.”

Democrats counter on teacher pay — House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee is looking to raise teacher salaries throughout the state via new legislation. The push comes after Gov. Ron DeSantis put forward a $603 million package to bump up salaries for new teachers, starting teacher salaries at a minimum of $47,500. But McGhee’s bill addresses a problem that veteran educators have with the plan: it doesn’t help longtime educators. Under the Democrat’s proposal, teacher salaries would be raised to $47,500 or bumped up by 5%, whichever number is higher. In 2021, those salaries would see another 4% bump or be increased to $49,400, and so on.

Motorola out at DMS — the Department of Management Services appears to be ditching Motorola Solutions as the vendor for the next generation Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System. DMS Secretary Jonathan Satter had given the company an ultimatum in a letter last month, telling Motorola Solutions CEO Gregory Brown the company could either agree to the terms DMS had put forward, or the department would yank the contract. It seems the latter occurred.

TaxWatch rallies for Visit Florida — The budget watchdog is best known for calling out wasteful spending with its annual turkey list. But Florida TaxWatch made clear it supports VISIT FLORIDA, affordable housing, and environmental spending in the 2020 Legislative Session. The group produced research saying state investment into tourism remains essential to the state. The organization said continued funding supports as many as 1.4 million Florida jobs and $8 billion and state and local tax revenue. It also released a new report showing the economic importance of water quality and restoration.

Regulator caught with child sex dollDavid Wayne Aring, a senior attorney for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, was arrested after a Florida Law Enforcement Agency investigation, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. Lang, who previously worked with the Guardian ad Litem program, was allegedly uploading child pornography to a peer-to-peer network from his apartment. He faced 10 counts of possession of child porn, as well as one count of possessing a childlike sex doll at his home.

Graduation rate keeps climbing

DeSantis announced this week that more Florida high schoolers graduated in the 2018-19 school year than the year before.

According to the data, 86.9% of seniors earned their diploma last school year, compared to 86.1 % who graduated on time in the 2017-18 school year — a difference of 0.8%.

Ron DeSantis is touting rising graduation rates.

“I applaud Florida’s students, parents and educators for their hard work and dedication that lead to these increased graduation rates,” DeSantis said.

“While these results are a positive mark of Florida’s upward progress, we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent. We must continue striving for educational excellence and making Florida the No. 1 state in the nation for education.”

The graduation data showed increases for most demographics as well, including a 0.6% bump for black students, a 0.8% increase for Hispanic students and a 3.6% increase for disabled students.

“Today’s results show that more Florida students than ever are positioning themselves for success after high school,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said. “I am very proud of them for their diligence and commitment to the value of education. Through Gov. DeSantis’ leadership, Florida will continue raising the bar to ensure all students receive the world-class education they deserve.”

Infrastructure cash flows

DeSantis this week announced another $5.4 million in grant funding for communities affected by Hurricane Michael.

The cash is heading to 15 city and county governments and will be used to complete infrastructure projects within Calhoun, Gadsden, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties. The funds come from a pot of money approved by lawmakers in the 2019-20 budget.

The cash keeps flowing as Ron DeSantis announces more money for infrastructure repair due to Hurricane Michael.

“Hurricane Michael left devastating impacts throughout Northwest Florida, and communities are still trying to rebuild,” DeSantis said. “I appreciate the Florida Legislature’s quick and creative utilization of the Rural Infrastructure Fund to help Northwest Florida rural communities recover and focus on rebuilding and developing more resilient infrastructure to move their local economies forward.”

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Director Ken Lawson added, “I applaud Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature for their commitment to help Florida communities with strengthening their infrastructure needs in these inland communities affected by Hurricane Michael.

“These smart strategic investments will not only help these communities recover from Hurricane Michael but will also help them develop stronger, more resilient economies.”

Moody, Uber prep for Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is less than a month away, and Attorney General Ashley Moody has teamed up with Uber to help crackdown on human trafficking during the major sporting event.

This week marked the first of many planned events to educate Uber drivers on how to spot signs of human trafficking among their fares when the Super Bowl comes to South Florida.

Super Bowl LIV is about three weeks away, and Ashley Moody and Uber are gearing up to help spot & report Human Trafficking during the festivities.

“Hosting the Super Bowl is a win for Florida, and I am proud that the NFL chose our state as the site of not only Super Bowl LIV but also Super Bowl LV,” Moody said.

“Sadly, when thousands of people come together to celebrate major events, criminals look to exploit the market through downright malicious acts of evil. We are making preparations now to help stop these crimes, protect visitors, and hold accountable anyone who would exploit this event to profit off the misery of another human being.”

The training is being delivered by the International Rescue Committee, one of the first organizations in the nation to receive federal funding to combat human trafficking after legislation passed in 2003.

Since then, the IRC’s Miami team has trained more than 12,000 professionals in the tri-county area to identify and report potential trafficking cases and provided services to more than 500 foreign-born and domestic survivors of human trafficking.

Through the partnership between Attorney General Moody’s Office and Uber, additional anti-human trafficking educational sessions will be held, in both English and Spanish, for the more than 100,000 Florida drivers using Uber.

Instagram of the week

The week in appointments

2020 Census Statewide Complete Count Committee — DeSantis appointed Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez and Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs Executive Director Danny Burgess to Florida’s 2020 Census Statewide Complete Count Committee. Nuñez will serve as chair for the committee, which aims to make sure Floridians are accurately reflected in the federal count. Burgess will represent Florida’s veteran community on the committee.

PDMP posts results

The Florida Department of Health released its 2018-19 Prescription Drug Monitoring Program report this week, and there are some promising trends.

“I am pleased that the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program has been so successful in helping reduce the misuse and diversion of controlled substances, including prescription opioids, in Florida,” Núñez said. “This information allows us to closely study trends and achieve a better understanding of the practice and frequency of drug prescribing among providers, as well as drug consumption among patients.”

Florida is showing some ‘promising trends’ in the fight over prescription drug misuse, says Jeanette Núñez.

The data shows the average morphine milligram equivalents prescribed — a measure used in tracking opioid prescriptions — has been cut in half; also, the PDMP database has been queried by doctors more than 50 million times.

“The Prescription Drug Monitoring Program has proved an effective tool in helping our partners in public health respond to the opioid crisis and has made a real difference in protecting our families and loved ones from the ravages of prescription drug abuse,” Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said.

“While I am pleased by the progress reflected in this report, there still remains plenty of work to do regarding the elimination of prescription drug abuse and misuse in our great state.”

Disaster grants awarded

Volunteer Florida is sending $120,000 to 22 Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and Citizen Corps programs throughout Florida.

“As Florida’s lead agency for volunteers and donations before, during and after disasters, we are proud to support programs across the state that prepare citizens to take action in times of emergency,” said Volunteer Florida CEO Clay Ingram.

CERT and Citizen Corps are training programs that prepare Floridians to help their families and neighbors in the event of a disaster in their community. Volunteer Florida administers funding for these programs in partnership with the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Volunteer Florida CEO Clay Ingram says his agency is sending $122K to 22 Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and Citizen Corps programs.

“Volunteers strengthen the work of emergency management officials and play a key role in response and recovery efforts in Florida’s communities,” DeSantis said. “I applaud the hundreds of Floridians who will become trained through the CERT and Citizen Corps programs ahead of this year’s hurricane season.”

The awards range from $5,000 to $8,900 and are heading out to emergency management departments, county governments and CERT programs in all regions of the state.

“Gov. DeSantis, Volunteer Florida and FDEM are committed to developing strong groups that are ready to help Floridians in the face of any emergency,” said FDEM Director Jared Moskowitz. “This funding helps us to do exactly that by investing in community-led teams across the state. I look forward to continuing to work with Volunteer Florida as they lead the way in volunteer disaster response.”

Lawmakers take up DeSantis’ environmental goals

DeSantis’ environmental priorities are starting to gain traction in the Legislature.

This week, several lawmakers put forward bills that would tackle parts of the Governor’s plan for environmental conservation and spending.

Among them are proposals by Sen. Joe Gruters and Rep. Randy Fine, both Republicans, which would increase fines for polluters.

Joe Gruters and Randy Fine want to boost penalties for polluters.

DeSantis had asked for a 50% bump in the maximum fines that can be levied against people, companies and local governments responsible for illegal dumping or polluting waterways and the bills (HB 1091 and SB 1450) would deliver — upping the max from $10,000 a day to $15,000 a day.

Across the aisle, Democratic Rep. Ben Diamond filed a bill (HB 1239) that would direct the Public Service Commission and state Department of Transportation to formulate a plan for installing electric vehicle charging stations along state highways.

DeSantis has called for using money the state obtained from the Volkswagen emissions settlement to put EV charging stations at all Florida Turnpike plazas.

Restraining students with disabilities

Sen. Lauren Book and Rep. Bobby DuBose are pushing legislation that would limit the use of restraints on students with disabilities.

The dual measures (SB 1644 and HB 1231) revive past efforts to reduce the practice in Florida’s schools.

“Students deserve to be safe at school, and parents deserve peace of mind,” Book said in a statement on the measure.

“While the majority of our special education school professionals provide caring and safe learning environments for students with disabilities, we have unfortunately seen serious abuses committed as well. This bill will ensure students with disabilities are not placed into dangerous situations including seclusion and restraint while in Florida classrooms.”

Lauren Book and Bobby DuBose are backing legislation to limit the use of restraints on students with disabilities.

The legislation states that a student may only be restrained “when there is an imminent risk of serious injury and shall be discontinued as soon as the threat posed by the dangerous behavior has dissipated.”

The measures also limit the types of restraints that could be used and increase training for staff on how to deal with students with disabilities.

“Children with disabilities are among the most vulnerable members of our society,” DuBose said.

“This bill will assure parents that their child will not experience the unnecessary trauma of being restrained, secluded, or put in another harmful situation by school personnel. School should be a safe environment, where our kids can learn and feel protected.”

The pair of Democrats have also courted Republican Rep. Ray Rodrigues to serve as a co-sponsor of the measure in the House.

“Sen. Book and Rep. Dubose have put forth a great bill,” Rodrigues said.

“Our students with disabilities are our most vulnerable students and need to learn and grow in a safe setting. This bill is a major step toward achieving that goal, and I look forward to supporting it.

Book says the measure will be a priority of hers heading into the 2020 Session.

“We’ve had some issues locally within the Broward County School system where you’ve had children who are nonverbal, on the spectrum who’ve been either verbally or physically abused in schools, allegedly,” Book told Florida Politics.

“This bill will go a long way in solving some of those issues.”

Flavored nicotine ban?

A bill from GOP state Sen. Anitere Flores is seeking to ban the sale of flavored liquid nicotine in the state of Florida.

The issue has been in the news with a move by the Donald Trump administration to ban certain types of flavored e-cigarettes.

The flavored nicotine is used in vapes and other devices. Critics say the flavoring attracts children to begin vaping at a young age. Defenders of vaping argue the process is a less dangerous alternative to smoking cigarettes.

Anitere Flores wants to ban flavored nicotine vaping liquid.

Flores’ measure (SB 1638) would make it illegal “to sell, deliver, barter, furnish or give, directly or indirectly, flavored liquid nicotine to any person.”

A violation could lead to a fine of up to $500 per offense.

The bill would also bar the “advertisement, marketing, promotion, or any other activity the person knows or should know is likely to cause or lead to the unlawful use of nicotine dispensing devices or nicotine products.”

Flores would also require retailers to strengthen age verification to ensure those purchasing vaping devices are at least 18 years old.

The bill would take effect on July 1, 2020, if successful.

Flores’ legislation serves as a companion bill to a measure from Rep. Jackie Toledo. Though Toledo’s proposal is more expansive, it also bans the sale of flavored liquid nicotine products.

UK trade spotlighted

While trade talks with Mexico and Canada earn all the cable news airtime, Sen. Joe Gruters has his eyes across the sea. The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee chair wants to see a free-trade agreement approved between the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

The Sarasota Republican filed a Senate Memorial (SM 1658) calling on the Florida Senate to weigh in on the matter.

“The United States is the United Kingdom’s largest single-country trade partner, with a relationship valued at over $200 billion,” Gruters notes in the memorial. “both countries are each other’s largest foreign direct investors, having approximately $1 trillion invested in each other’s economies.”

Joe Gruters is behind a resolution to see a free-trade agreement approved between the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Enterprise Florida reports the U.K. is also the biggest investor in Florida. British companies have created more than 40,000 jobs here, and exports to the island nation total $1 billion annually.

“This state would benefit greatly from the ratification of a comprehensive free trade agreement,” Gruters writes, “which, since the United Kingdom is currently the largest foreign direct employer in this state and is the second-largest market for tourism, would create employment opportunities for residents of this state as a direct result of removing and reducing barriers to trade and free markets.”

If approved, the Florida Senate Memorial would be sent to the White House and Congress, urging the negotiation of a timely and comprehensive negation and approval of a deal.

Florida-Puerto Rico friendship memorialized

As the closest state to Puerto Rico, the relationship between the U.S. territory and Florida has always been strong. Now, Sen. Victor Torres wants to make it official.

The Kissimmee Democrat filed a Senate resolution (SR 1610) to formalize a “friendship” between Puerto Rico and the state of Florida. He notes the jurisdictions share several interests and significant history.

Florida was “discovered” by Juan Ponce de León, who served as the first Governor of Puerto Rico at the time. And following the Western expansion of European explorers and conquistadors, both territories were initially under Spanish rule.

Puerto Rico Gov. Juan Ponce de León ‘discovered’ Florida.

But the relationship has demonstrated itself in modern times as well.

“The governments of Puerto Rico and Florida have a strong friendship, as demonstrated in 2017 when Florida helped Puerto Rico rebuild after Hurricane Maria and again in 2018 when Puerto Rico reciprocated by sending aid to Florida after Hurricane Michael.”

The back-to-back natural disasters were the strongest storms on record to ever strike Puerto Rico and Florida, respectively.

The help after Michael, which devastated major portions of the Big Bend and Florida Panhandle, makes now the right moment to memorialize the kinship of the tropical jurisdictions.

Cooling craft beer laws

Shipping booze around Florida has only become more controversial as craft beer has grown in popularity. But Sen. Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican, wants to make it easier for distilleries to run their own product.

He has filed legislation (SB 1584), which will let manufacturers who hold a vendor’s license to sell, transport, and deliver malt beverages to vendors, at least under the right circumstances. That includes making sure the beer is kegged in standard 5.16-, 7.75 or 15.5-gallon containers, and that the manufacturer has a franchise agreement or they have a total production volume of more than 60,000 barrels per year. A barrel holds 31 gallons.

Keith Perry wants to make it easier for craft brewers to sell the product.

Perry’s bill also revises alcoholic beverage inventory requirements for warehouse space owned or leased by certain distributors, cutting the required percentage of case sales and cost of acquisition in half.

It also changes the percentage of licensed vendors a distributor must sell to in certain locations, from 25% of vendors in a county to 10%. That cuts the threshold for a company to be presumed to be selling the product to licensed dealers generally.

Keep rolling

Cigars always held a certain smoky allure in Florida’s social identity. But there’s a lot of rules on the tobacco industry that make it hard to roll your own smokes.

Rep. Anthony Sabatini wants that changed. The Howey-in-the-Hills Republican has filed a House Memorial (HM 1093) calling for federal law to exempt small businesses from making cigars. The text of the bill shows a reverence for the activity aimed at winning Congress over.

“Hand-rolling cigars is an old tradition, and it takes countless years for a person to become proficient in the art,” reads Sabatini’s bill. “Although most premium hand-rolled cigars are made in Central America and Cuba, such cigars are still handmade in Tampa and Miami, Florida, and Union City, New Jersey, using 100 % tobacco leaves.”

Anthony Sabatini is calling for federal law to exempt small businesses hand-rolling cigars

He said that while tobacco sales have dropped dramatically in the U.S., there remain neighborhoods in Tampa and Miami where handmade cigars remain profitable.

Specifically, Sabatini wants the Florida House to back federal legislation filed in the U.S. House (HR 1854) by Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor and in the U.S. Senate (S 9) by Miami Republican Marco Rubio. Florida-grown and bipartisan, that legislation has seen co-sponsors jump on from around the country in both chambers, but still hasn’t seen a vote.

Castor’s bill drew 11 Florida co-sponsors, and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott has signed on in support of Rubio’s legislation. But the support of the Florida House may light a spark in Washington.

FSU Law students get hands-on course in The Process

FSU Law students will get educated on how a bill becomes law this semester

The Florida Legislative Practice: From Bill Drafting to the Governor’s Desk course will see students learn the legislative process with the help of a range of experts — including some facetime (or “mock committee” time) with sitting lawmakers.

Tons of top lobbyists will also drop by to offer their insights. Some of the advocates who dropped in on the fall class, many of them FSU Law alums: Holly Miller Moore of TECO Energy, Jeff Branch of the Florida League of Cities, Pamela Burch Fort (’77) of The Commerce Group, Aimee Diaz Lyon of Metz Husband & Daughton, Abigail L. Vail of the Florida Department of Financial Services, Chris Schoonover of Capital City Consulting, Derek Silver of the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, and Darrick D. McGhee, Sr., of Johnson and Blanton.

This semester, FSU Law students will get schooled in The Process.

Lawmakers lending their time included Reps. Javier Fernandez, Elizabeth Anne Fetterhoff, Mike Gottlieb, James Grant, Evan Jenne and Amber Mariano. Going to school in the capital city certainly has its benefits.

With the spring semester encompassing the 2020 Legislative Session, students will get to watch the process play out as they learn. Past spring courses have also seen legislative leaders add to the curriculum — last year, Senate President Bill Galvano invited students to the Senate chamber, where he regaled them on his leadership style and role in ensuring the process runs smoothly while working successfully with the House and Governor’s office.

Aubuchon rides again

Former state Rep. Gary Aubuchon this weekend will jump on his 1997 Schwinn bike and pedal from the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa to the steps of the Capitol in Tallahassee. He’s riding as part of the Cure on Wheels program to raise awareness of cancer’s impact on the lives of Floridians.

Former state Rep. Gary Aubuchon hits the road from Tampa to The Capitol for the 10th anniversary Cure on Wheels.

“This disease strikes everywhere, indiscriminately,” Aubuchon said. “I have no doubt that cancer has impacted someone in your life. It claimed the lives of my parents, my wife Andrea‘s parents, and a wonderful employee Dana.”

He’ll bike this year in honor of two friends, Debbie Weis and Lois Nemec, currently battling forms of cancer.

“I will ride with passion and conviction, fueled with the understanding that, with your help, we are all fighting back,” he said.

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