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Takeaways from Tallahassee — TallyMadness2020

A new winner is crowned in TallyMadness.

TallyMadness2020

Yesterday was the last day of Session (sort of) and Friday the 13th, as well as COVID-19 putting the kibosh on March Madness — but for Corrine Mixon, it was a very good day.

After three weeks, 67 rivals and 133,000 votes, the 38-year-old was named the winner of TallyMadness, a competition to determine the top young lobbyist in the capital city.

And the winner is … Corrine Mixon.

A government consultant for Rutledge & Ecenia, Mixon wasn’t greeted by a confetti cannon when she entered the Capitol. In fact, with the link down for a short while, she didn’t know she had won until halfway through the morning. And even then, she’s not one to trash talk after her victory.

“I’m certainly honored. It was nice seeing people at The Capitol and continuing to get encouragement and congratulations from folks that had been in the brackets earlier on,” she said. “Obviously, the last day of Session is kind of a stressful day for a lot of people … so it was a nice departure from that.”

The final one-on-one match-up pitted Mixon against Justin Thames, the in-house lobbyist for the CPA’s association.

Bottom line: She couldn’t have beaten a nicer guy. “He really is the nicest. I like him a lot,” she said.

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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

Budget bumping along — Senate and House Appropriations Chairs Rob Bradley and Travis Cummings on Thursday evening showed budget progress, but still expect conferences to likely run into Sunday, with lawmakers returning Wednesday to sign off. The chambers remain $3 million apart on emergency preparedness funding, with the House seeking $2 million for a statewide comprehensive flood plain model and $970 for phase 2 of the “Florida Severe Weather Mesonet.” But there’s agreement on $354 million in PECO spending, a $4.36 state hemp program, and on keeping VISIT FLORIDA open.

Coronavirus cases continue to grow — The state budget has earmarked more than $300 million in reserves for the response to the coronavirus pandemic. Growing concerns about the health threat dashed any hopes officials had of wrapping up Session on time Friday. The concern from a financial standpoint is that the disease severely impacts major industries like tourism, as well as work productivity at businesses across the board. But the state is also working to contain the growing crisis, something health officials warn will worsen before it gets better. As of Friday morning, Florida had 45 presumptively positive tests for coronavirus back. Two Floridians have died from the illness.

Scope of Practice bills signed — Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation allowing qualified nurse practitioners to independently operate primary care practices without an attending doctor’s supervision. Advanced nurse practitioners who complete 3,000 hours of experience under the supervision of a physician and graduate-level course work in differential diagnosis and pharmacology can qualify to provide services, including family medicine, general pediatrics, and general internal medicine, under the new law. DeSantis also signed a bill into law to allow qualified pharmacists to test and treat ailments like the flu, strep throat, lice, and skin conditions like ringworm and athlete’s foot.

Legislature passes low-enforcement E-Verify bill — Senators agreed to the House language for legislation requiring employers to verify new hires are eligible to work in the U.S. The compromise came despite calls for a more substantial measure from as high up as the Governor. The bill allows businesses to use the federal E-Verify database to confirm an employee can legally work, or they can use existing I-9 forms where employees provide documentation to verify they are allowed to hold a job here. The Senate had passed language granting greater auditing and enforcement powers to the Department of Economic Opportunity, but the House stripped those provisions out of the final bill.

Senate pares down tax cut package — A House tax package to cut $120.5 million worth of revenue drew sudden worry as the coronavirus threat grew. The Senate entered its last day of the Regular Session with plans to trim cuts significantly. The package started with a three-day back to school and seven-day disaster holidays, a communications service tax reduction of 0.5%, charitable hospital and private LLC affordable housing property tax breaks, and ad valorem exemptions for deployed service members. But Sen. Kelli Stargel’s version in the Senate aimed to reduce revenue losses from tax cuts to $57.6 million. That’s a substantial difference still being settled in conference.

Vaping epidemic

Attorney General Ashley Moody is thanking lawmakers for passing legislation (SB 810) to curb the teen vaping. The bill passed the Senate Thursday and has been sent to DeSantis.

Moody says it will usher in critical changes to state laws aimed at reducing minors’ access to vaping products in Florida.

Ashley Moody thanks lawmakers for helping in the fight against teen vaping.

“As I learned last summer during my statewide fact-finding mission, vaping is taking over our schools and addicting our kids,” she said.

“That is why I took swift action — launching a teen-vaping investigation in Florida involving some 20 companies and leading a multistate investigation into JUUL. I also began working with state lawmakers last year on changes to help curb the youth vaping epidemic, and I was elated to see this vital legislation passing its final stop in the Florida Legislature.”

Moody thanked co-sponsors Sens. David Simmons and Anitere Flores. Rep. Jackie Toledo sponsored the House companion. She also thanked every member who voted in favor of this bill “to stop underage vaping and protect our children.”

Simmons said, “I am proud to have sponsored this measure to raise the smoking and vaping age to 21 and limit products specially marketed toward children. I appreciate the hard work of Rep. Toledo, who sponsored this legislation in the House of Representatives, as well as the strong support of Attorney General Moody.”

Toledo added, “This legislation will save lives and help to ensure that black-market products don’t get in the hands of our youth.”

Last month, Attorney General Moody announced Florida’s role in leading a 39-state coalition of attorneys general in investigating the vaping company, JUUL.

Parade of Patronis

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis put plenty of wear on his Ropers boots the last week of Session.

He was busy working both Chambers of the Legislature pressing for bills to pass. He applauded the passage Tuesday of FinTech legislation (HB 1391) from Rep. James Grant and Sen. Travis Hutson to establish a ‘technology sandbox’ within the Office of Financial Regulation for facilitating technological innovation.

CFO Jimmy Patronis inducted veterans into the Hall of Fame including John Brinkley, Kathryn Gates-Skipper, Edward Copeland III, Dale Leslie, Donald Courtney, Norman Olson, Raymond Cralle, Robert Phillips, Michael Flynt, Juan Santiago-Seda, Matt Franz, Michael Waldrop, Irving Friedman, William Webb, Ali Frohlich, Albert Zant.

“As someone who’s run a small business, I know just how beneficial it is to our communities to attract high paying, technology-focused jobs,” Patronis said. “FinTech’s opportunities for Florida are limitless, and the more we can do to create a regulatory environment that allows businesses to innovate and test new technologies, the more effective we’ll be at attracting technology jobs and investment to Florida communities.”

Among a variety of other bills the Cabinet member touted this Session was the Florida Veterans Protection Act (SB 294), which aims at scammers targeting veterans. If signed into law, anyone who victimizes 10 or more veterans will be charged with an aggravated white-collar crime.

“Our veterans are twice as likely to be targeted for scams than you or me,” Patronis said. I applaud the Florida Legislature for taking vital steps to better protect Florida’s veterans by holding the criminals who choose to defraud them accountable. Thank you to Sen. Tom Wright and Rep. Bobby Payne for championing this important legislation to protect our heroes.”

The Panama City Republican also held a ceremony Monday at the Florida State Capitol inducted 16 individuals into the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs Veterans Hall of Fame.

“We must continue to do everything we can to ensure Florida remains the most veteran-friendly state in the nation,” he said. “Thanks to FDVA Executive Director Danny Burgess for his leadership and support of Florida’s veterans and congratulations to all of our Florida Veterans’ Hall of Fame inductees.”

Out-of-school lunch

Following Friday’s announcement that all Florida K-12 schools will be closed through March 30, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ (FDACS) Division of Food, Nutrition, and Wellness announced alternative methods for providing school meals to students.

While FDACS will provide authority to local school districts on alternative methods of delivering nutritious meals, the decision to serve meals during school closures rests with each school district. 

Ag. Commissioner Nikki Fried and FDACS are encouraging all school districts to provide meals throughout the closure. FDACS will also leverage its Summer BreakSpot community and non-profit partners to ensure Florida’s students are fed. Parents should contact their local school district to determine if school meals will be served during this closure.

During the extended school closure, the FDACS will make sure school kids are still fed.

On March 6th, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced flexibilities that would allow schools, child care institutions, and community organizations to provide meals to low-income children through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) or National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO) during school closures related to the novel coronavirus disease.

FDACS has submitted USDA waiver requests to benefit from this flexibility. The intent to serve must be provided in writing along with the application.

“For millions of Florida’s children, school meals are the only meals they can count on,” Fried said. “We are working closely with school districts to ensure that students have access to healthy, nutritious meals while schools are closed due to COVID-19.”

Trade ties

The Belize Trade and Investment Development Service (BELTRAIDE) dropped by the Capitol last week to talk about building the bonds between the Sunshine State and the South American nation.

The two-day trip saw Belizean representative speak with lawmakers, Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Lt. Gov. Jeannette Núñez about trade and investment development as well as ways to promote bilateral opportunities for market access.

Belize is the only native-English speaking country in Central and South America. The lack of a language barrier and its relative safety have positioned it as a tourism destination for American travelers. Combined with its location in the Central time zone, the country has also seen its market share in the call center industry rise in recent years.

In addition to serving as the primary port and airlift gateway for Belizean exports and travelers into the U.S., many members of the Belizean diaspora currently live in Florida, presenting several opportunities for greater commercial, educational and other exchanges.

Facebook unrolls alert system

Facebook has partnered with public health agencies across the country on a coronavirus alert system. That includes working to distribute information directly from Florida health departments to users.

The technology unroll came the same day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus threat a pandemic.

“It is important for people to have the right information to keep themselves and their communities safe,” reads an announcement from Facebook. “During this growing crisis, Facebook announced the expansion of the Local Alerts tool to state and local health departments, including in Florida, to get COVID-19 information to citizens when they need it most.”

That will be done through Local Alerts, a tool already in use for law enforcement and first responders to communicate information to communities quickly. The platform has now been opened to health departments, and Facebook officials have worked to get Florida health officials online fast.

Facebook Local Alerts will now be used by local health departments in the coronavirus crisis. Image via AP.

“The tool has been used to communicate everything from weather advisories, to road closures, to missing persons and community safety threats,” the Facebook announcement explains.

“Now, the tool can be utilized by state and local health agencies to communicate information relating to COVID-19. Government health agencies should be the source of truth for the American public on COVID-19 information.”

When authorized officials release information through the tool, push notifications will be sent to users from targeted geographical jurisdictions. Facebook is also offering training and resources to ensure agencies get the system up and running as fast as possible.

Instagram of the Week

Simmons honored

The Florida Senate honored outgoing President Pro Tempore David Simmons on Thursday.

Tributes came in from across the Chamber, and CFO Patronis, Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried, and Secretary of State Laurel Lee were on hand.

Senate President Bill Galvano said Simmons “made it look easy.”

This week, the Senate honored Sen. David Simmons.

“He’s done an outstanding job … the last two years, you have made our success a reality.”

Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson extolled his “warm heart.”

“You tell it like it is, and I like a person who tells it like it is because I tell it like it is too,” Gibson said.

Senators gave Simmons a copy of an 1868 biography of Abraham Lincoln, a favorite President of his.

“He stood for equality of opportunity,” Simmons said, before expressing especial appreciation for the Spanish-language biography of the 16th President.

Voucher expansion praised

Sen. Manny Diaz is fully backing the Legislature’s push to expand school vouchers to an estimated 29,000.

Diaz chairs the Senate Education Committee and has been a vocal backer of the state’s voucher program. Friday, The Senate approved legislation (HB 7067) from GOP Rep. Jennifer Sullivan. Diaz sponsored the Senate version of the bill.

“Today is a great day for education,” Diaz said Friday upon the bill’s passage.

“Empowering parents and students of all economic backgrounds is an essential component to ensuring high-quality education for all our children. The expansion of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program was a labor of love that I am honored to have carried across the finish line. Our parents deserve it. Our students deserve it. And the future of our great state deserves it.”

Manny Diaz ushered through a major expansion of the state’s educational voucher program.

The bill would raise the household income levels for the Family Empowerment Scholarship to up to 325% of the federal poverty level, up from 185%. The maximum number of students allowed to participate in the FES scholarship program would also increase annually by 1% of the state’s total public school student enrollment, up from the 0.25% currently allowed.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship income limit would rise to 300%. If there’s still money available and more than 5% of scholarships are still available, students whose families earn up to 325% of the federal poverty level would be eligible.

It also removed the restriction on the Florida Tax Credit that families’ household incomes must be below 260% of the federal poverty level to get the scholarship. It would give priority to families whose incomes are 185% of the federal poverty limit.

Gift ban holds

With the clock running out on the 2020 Legislative Session, a bill intended to help seriously ill state employees looks to be on the ropes.

Senate Budget Chief Bradley’s SB 1490 would allow non-elected state employees to “accept any gift or compensation, regardless of value” if it is applied directly toward the expenses incurred from treating their or their child’s “serious disease or illness.”

The Senate unanimously passed the bill Thursday.

Alexis Lambert’s call for reasonable changes to the state’s gift ban looks to be on the ropes for 2020.

However, with budget negotiations and tax package negotiations proving to be difficult to resolve, the likelihood of the House taking up the bill is remote to nil.

The argument is that catastrophic illness can put a financial strain on an individual or a family. State employees typically lack the resources to deal with such.

The background involved a personal story of setback and comeback: Alexis Lambert, an attorney working for the Florida Lottery and previously for the Constitutional Revision Commission, got Stage 3 colon cancer.

When it became clear that the bill was dead, Lambert turned her focus to the 2021 Legislative Session.

“My bill died today. While I’m disappointed, I have faith we can get it done next session,” she said on Twitter. “Thanks to Rep. Jayer Williamson and Sen. Rob Bradley for all of your hard work on behalf of critically ill state employees. And thank you, friends, for your support. We’ll get ’em next time.”

Call first

The Senate passed legislation Thursday (HB 1095) that prevents damage and enhances safety as a result of digging underground without taking proper precautions. It provides noncriminal violations relating to the transportation of certain hazardous materials. 

Under the measure, people are required to give an incident report to the State Fire Marshal and incident reports are investigated by the State Fire Marshal, or his or her staff. It also requires Sunshine State One-Call of Florida, Inc. to review and evaluate certain reports and complaints about issues associated with prevention and enforcement.

The bill was sponsored by Fort Myers Republican Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen. The Senate companion was sponsored by Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores

You’d better call before you dig under a bill sponsored by Heather Fitzenhagen.

“Serious injuries and even death, as a result of negligence can be caused by incidents with underground natural gas pipes,” Flores said. “This legislation will provide accountability and enforces standards of safety that will protect our first responders, our utility workers and our neighborhoods. I anticipate our Governor signing this piece of legislation into law because safeguarding Floridians is our first priority.”

“I am grateful to my fellow House members for supporting this bill to keep first responders, utility workers and our communities safe by requiring individuals to call 8-1-1 before they dig,” Fitzenhagen said. “By taking the necessary precautions, contractors who dig underground can not only avoid penalties, but they can prevent fires and explosions that can harm others.”

The bill will bring the State of Florida into compliance with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the United States Department of Transportation.

Decontamination grants

Lawmakers have approved a measure to set up a “Firefighter Cancer Decontamination Equipment Grant Program.” That bill will now ship to DeSantis for his signature.

The legislation tasks the State Fire Marshal’s Office with administering the $250,000 grant program. Those funds are recurring and will go to fire departments in need to help “procure equipment, supplies, and educational training designed to mitigate exposure to hazardous, cancer-causing chemicals.”

“This meaningful legislation helps provide vital equipment, training, and supplies to mitigate firefighter exposure to cancer-causing contaminants,” said Patronis, the state’s Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal.

Lawmakers approved the Senate version of the bill (SB 1092), which was filed by Sen. Aaron Bean. Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff handled the House version.

Aaron Bean and Elizabeth Fetterhoff each carried bills for decontamination grants.

“Floridians depend on their local firefighters every day to come to their aid at a moment’s notice,” Bean said in a statement following the bill’s passage. “This bill ensures that we are coming to their aid every day to keep them safe from cancer-causing residue on their equipment.”

Fire departments can apply for the grants, which will be doled out annually. The money will be awarded based on “the decontamination equipment and supply needs of the fire department, the financial needs of the fire department, and the level of nonstate matching funds proposed in the application,” according to the bill.

“These men and women protect us every day, and this bill will help protect them from chemicals that cause cancer and other illnesses,” Fetterhoff added. “Thank you to my constituents, the CFO’s office, Senator Bean, and both chambers for seeing the importance of this legislation and voting in favor of this good bill.”

Rural relief

The House approved a bill Wednesday aiming to provide monetary assistance for rural communities.

The Senate OK’d that legislation (SB 426) last week, meaning it’s now ready for DeSantis’ signature.

Democratic Sen. Bill Montford was behind the bill in the Senate. Republican Rep. Chuck Clemons and Democratic Rep. Tina Polsky co-sponsored the House version (HB 1139).

Sen. Bill Montford shepherded a rural relief bill through the Senate. Image via Phil Sears.

“SB 426 reduces the local match requirements for communities applying for the Regional Rural Development Grant and Rural Infrastructure Fund while maintaining the same amount of allocating funds to the Rural Revolving Loan Fund,” Clemons explained on the House floor Tuesday.

Just before the vote Wednesday, Polsky added: “Rural counties are facing a crisis when it comes to their economies’ tax base and decreasing population.”

Both the House and Senate unanimously approved the measure, a 40-0 vote in the Senate, and a 118-0 margin in the House.

The bill also adjusts some state-level organizations responsible for overseeing programs administered by the Department of Economic Opportunity

“This bill does not affect the local workforce boards in our districts,” Clemons said. “It simply realigns the roles and responsibilities of the entities at the top.”

One of those organizations is CareerSource Florida. Kevin Doyle, Chairman of the group’s Board of Directors, praised the passage of the bill in a Thursday statement.

“The CareerSource Florida team, at the direction of CEO and President Michelle Dennard, works in lockstep with this Board of Directors to ensure that the business-driven priorities and policies we establish are executed in alignment with our Governor’s priorities,” Doyle said.

“Pending the Governor’s approval, this legislation will reaffirm that relationship while strengthening this board’s capacity to bring innovative, collaborative solutions forward.”

Donna’s Law

Both chambers of the Legislature cleared a bill removing the statute of limitations for sexual assault against minors with a unanimous vote.

Known as “Donna’s Law,” the bill was inspired by Donna Hedrick, who came forward about her childhood sexual abuse only to find that she was barred from seeking justice by an arbitrary deadline.

Current law applies a different statute of limitations lengths based on the age of the victim and whether they reported the assault at the time it happened.

From victim to activist: Donna Hedrick of the eponymous ‘Donna’s Law.’

HB 199, which now heads to the Governor, was carried by Jacksonville Democratic Rep. Tracie Davis and Longwood Republican Rep. Scott Plakon. Orlando Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart handled the companion bill, SB 170.

“This is a major win for survivors and shows the true power of speaking out and sharing your story. This is proof that the Florida Legislature hears your voices and that change is made by people who show the strength to come forward and fight to protect victims,” said Stewart.

“Over the years, time limitations have continued to expand for victims, but the time has finally come for them to be removed altogether for minors. This is just the right thing to do, and I thank my colleagues in both chambers for listening to the experiences and being a part of this positive change for the future.”

Dems celebrate climate bills

Democratic lawmakers used the closing days of Session to highlight climate priorities approved during the 2020 Session.

Sen. José Javier Rodríguez kicked off a Friday news conference bringing focus to those efforts while shaming the Republican-controlled legislators for not doing more on the issue.

“In my view, and this is just my view, we’re crawling,” Rodríguez said.

“Had we taken the steps we did this year 10 years ago, I’d say we’re taking baby steps. But in my view, we’re starting to crawl.”

José Javier Rodríguez is leading the Democratic celebration on climate change bills.

Nevertheless, Rodríguez did commend his colleagues for approving a pair of bills — SB 178 and SB 7018.

“Two bills are headed to the Governor. One deals with the causes of climate change, and it deals with electric vehicle infrastructure,” Rodríguez noted.

“The other deals with the effects of climate [change]. It’s the most significant bill on the impact of climate we’ve passed, that has to do with requiring sea level and storm projections when we invest state dollars into coastal zones.”

SB 7018 calls for a study on expanding the state’s electric vehicle charging grid. Those vehicles are viewed as to help cut down carbon emissions.

SB 178, meanwhile, requires coastal projects which utilize state funds to be preceded by a sea-level impact study before construction can start.

Rodriguez was joined by fellow Democratic Sens. Victor Torres and Stewart. Democratic Reps. Anna Eskamani, Javier Fernández and Adam Hattersley were also on hand.

Stewart cited data showing why the Legislature was open to this year’s changes.

“Just over a month ago, Florida Atlantic University released a survey that showed that 70% of Floridians are concerned about the effects of climate change.,” Steward said.

Stewart, Rodríguez and Eskamani all argued they would continue pushing for additional reforms during next year’s Session.

New preserve

The Legislature moved this week to create the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, the first preserve designated in more than 30 years.

If approved by DeSantis, the preserve (HB 1061) would help protect seagrass meadows important to scalloping, fishing, boating and manatee-watching. The 800 square miles of preserve would cover 400,000 acres of seagrass in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve could serve as a lasting legacy that will safeguard the region’s environment, fishing, and tourism businesses for generations to come,” said Holly Binns, a Southeast project director at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties would be home to the state’s 42nd preserve. It would border several existing ones in Pinellas County, St. Martins Marsh, and the Big Bend, creating a large, contiguous protected area for the valuable marine coastline.

Rep. Ralph Massullo and Sen. Ben Albritton carried the measures through their respective chambers. The Senate passed the legislation unanimously while Rep. Amber Mariano cast the lone dissenting vote in the House.

More than 100 Nature Coast businesses, nine state and national recreational fishing and marine industry organizations, the Citrus and Hernando county commissions, and The Pew Charitable Trusts supported them.

Restoration funds from the Deepwater Horizon spill could be used to enhance the preserve. And while the navigation channels and property owners’ rights to build docks will not be affected by the preserve.

Unanimous after all

The House passed a bill banning import and export of fins to or from Florida.

Shark finning is the process of catching a shark, removing its fins and discarding the shark. Shark finners usually drop the body back into the ocean, where it bleeds to death or drowns because it can no longer swim properly. The fins fetch a hefty price on the black market, where they are most often sold to Asian countries.

The measure, championed by Rep. Kristin Jacobs, passed the House by what was a 119-1 margin.

Anthony Sabatini did the right thing, and made it unanimous for Kristin Jacob’s shark finning ban.

However, the margin is now 120-0.

The sole dissenter, Howey-in-the-Hills Republican Rep. Anthony Sabatini, flipped his votes … both against the bill, and against the motion to name the bill after Rep. Jacobs.

A long way to go for a unanimous vote, and one can imagine the conversations that got it there. But a win’s a win, and the House (finally) is united against the barbaric practice.

Teachable moment

Most ride-sharing users have had a memorable conversation or two with their drivers.

Windemere Democratic Rep. Geraldine Thompson had one such conversation this week during a shuttle ride to the Capitol. After she buckled in, and the van started rolling, the driver asked for whom she worked.

Thompson, who is black, recounted her thoughts before answering: “Clearly, when I got in the car, he put me in a box where he thought I belonged, and he asked me, so who do you work for up at the Capitol?”

The ride saw her reprise her pre-Legislature role as a teacher. The driver served as her student in this “teachable moment.” The lesson: don’t put people in boxes.

Geraldine Thompson took some time to school a van driver on putting people into boxes.

“I said I work for people who elected me to the Florida House of Representatives. I represent west Orange County, where 70% of the people in my district don’t look like me, and I work for them. I told him that, of the people registered to vote in House District 44 that I represent, 45% are Republicans, and I work for them,” she said.

The scope expanded. Thompson said as a member of the 120-member house; she worked for all the people of the state. Before she shut the door to the van, she concluded: “Sir, when I go up to the Capitol, I work for you.” The lesson resonated.

Thompson told the story on the House floor ahead of the chamber’s vote on a bill that would up the requirements for constitutional amendments to make the ballot.

“All of us have to remember who we work for up at the Capitol. We work for the people,” she said.

Unlike the driver, the House wasn’t receptive — the bill passed and awaits a signature from the Governor.

Pharmacy kiosks

Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite is praising the passage of a new measure allowing pharmacies to dispense certain prescription drugs through ATM-like devices.

Willhite was behind the House measure (HB 59), which was ultimately approved. Republican Sen. Travis Hutson back the Senate version.

Those kiosks are already used by some long-term care facilities, hospices and prisons. Willhite’s bill extends their use into places which are, for example, more rural or where pharmacies are limited.

Pharmacy kiosks could soon be expanded throughout Florida Florida.

“I am grateful for everyone that worked so hard to get this legislation all the way through the process,” Willhite said in a Friday statement following the bill’s passage.

“With the passage of this bill, we hope to expand an individual’s access to their prescription medication. These machines will only dispense generic medications, nonetheless, this technology will make it easier for busy parents and people living in rural communities to safely access the medications that they need.”

It will now be up to DeSantis to sign the measure into law.

The kiosks would be located in buildings connected to a pharmacy and would be under the “supervision and control” of a pharmacist, who would be responsible for tracking transactions. But the pharmacist may monitor those systems “electronically” and “need not be physically present at the site.”

IDs for developmentally disabled

The Legislature has approved a measure aiming to cut down on stressful or potentially life-threatening interactions for individuals diagnosed with a developmental disability.

The bill (HB 787) allows an individual with a developmental disability — or his or her parent or guardian — to request the letter “D” be placed on that person’s driver’s license. That document would then display to others — such as police officers or security staff — that the person is developmentally disabled.

Republican Rep. Josie Tomkow was behind the House version while GOP Sen. Anitere Flores sponsored the Senate version. The bill will now head to DeSantis for his signature.

“The face of disabilities is not always obvious, and HB 787 protects both a driver with special needs and law enforcement officers,” Flores said in a statement following the bill’s passage.

“Potential communication and interaction challenges that arise with a person with specified disabilities can be prevented. A simple, common-sense designation on a driver’s license is a tool that will build awareness and serve beneficial for officers from a safety standpoint.”

To have the designation added, the individual or his or her parent or guardian must present proof the person has been diagnosed with a developmental disability by a physician. That designation can be added or removed upon the surrender of the person’s current license.

“Stressful encounters can affect any Floridian, but those effects can be even more pronounced for Floridians with developmental disabilities,” Tomkow added.

“HB 787 helps our law enforcement officers and first responders better identify Floridians with unique needs so they can better handle high-pressure situations for both their safety and the safety of the individual.”

Divine Nine

House Democrats praised the passage of a specialty license tag bill, which adds the option to purchase plates representing the “Divine Nine” Greek groups.

The measure was approved by the House Friday, which allowed the bill to be shipped off to the Governor.

A bill on Ron DeSantis’ desk honors the ‘Divine 9’ Greek organizations at HBCUs.

In response, House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee and Democratic Rep. Thompson celebrated the inclusion of a provision allowing for Divine Nine license plates, which celebrate historically black fraternities and sororities.

“This is a historic day for Floridians and the Divine 9,” McGhee said.

“As a member of the Divine 9, I am proud to have fought for this legislation. We have asked for this for over eight years.”

The measure has been a pet project of Rep. Grant, as it allows drivers to purchase license plates representing Grant’s alma mater of Auburn University. The University of Georgia and the University of Alabama will also get plates under the measure.

But Thompson repeatedly pushed for the Divine Nine groups to be represented as well. Sen. Perry Thurston added an amendment on the Senate side, which did just that. After the House approved the changes, Thompson celebrated her efforts.

“Members of the Divine Nine are college-educated men and women who provide vital services to their communities where they mentor youth and provide college scholarships,” Thompson said.

“The Divine Nine license plate will generate resources that will do a lot of good in the community. I am proud to have proposed the tag in 2012 and to have worked to see it passed this Session.”

The revenue from those specialty license plates goes toward an array of beneficial causes, such as student scholarships.

‘Save Our Homes’

The Legislature greenlit a ballot measure asking voters whether to extend the homestead exemption portability period — also known as “Save Our Homes” — from two to three years.

The Florida Association of Property Appraisers is pleased voters will get a say, and it’s thanking the lawmaker who shepherded HJR 369 and HB 371 through the Legislative Session.

“I would like to thank State Rep. Rick Roth, for his leadership on this issue,” said Larry Bartlett, president of FAPA. “Rep. Roth understood the importance of this bill to Florida homeowners and worked hard to get this bill across the finish line.”

Rick Roth is a hero to the Florida Association of Property Appraisers. Image via Florida House.

Roth said the success marks “a great day for Florida residents” before issuing his own lauds.

“It was truly a team effort and I would like to thank Palm Beach County Property Appraiser Dorothy Jacks, CFA, AAS, Pinellas County Property Appraiser Mike Twitty, MAI, CFA, and the Florida Association of Property Appraisers. This new law would extend the timeline for Floridians to transfer their ‘Save Our Homes’ benefit from two to three years.”

The Save Our Homes’ benefit caps taxable assessment increases on a homesteaded property at 3% a year, and it allows sellers to take or “port” their current savings with them when buying a new home, providing they do so within the designated time frame and meet other requirements.

Under the “portability” component of the homestead exemption, a homeowner can transfer up to $500,000 of the accrued benefit from their former primary residence to their new home — but they have to claim it within two years.

If the ballot measure gets more than 60% of the vote in November, the portability window will extend to three years starting on Jan. 1, 2021.

Beach access

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park is getting a new wheelchair accessible tram thanks to a grant from Florida Power & Light Company.

The funding is heading to the Florida State Parks Foundation by way of FPL’s charitable arm, the NextEra Energy Foundation.

“This is a great way to start off 2020, which also marks the Florida Park Service’s 85th anniversary,” said Julia Gill Woodward, Florida State Parks Foundation CEO.

A wheelchair-accessible tram at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park is a perfect way to start Florida Park Service’s 85th anniversary, says Julia Gill Woodward.

“Both the Foundation and the Florida Park Service are committed to making our award-winning state parks more accessible and this new tram will not only lower emissions and be less noisy, but will be a great boost to visitors who use wheelchairs, enabling them to see more of the MacArthur’s incredible natural areas.”

The MotoEV Electro Neighborhood Buddy six-passenger tram has a 4 kW AC motor, which allows for less maintenance and more torque to climb tough terrain. It can travel 50 miles on a single charge and costs about one penny a mile. The onboard chargers also allow the vehicle’s batteries to be topped up at any charging station.

“John D. MacArthur Beach State Park is known as a destination where Florida residents and visitors alike can enjoy the beaches, trails, kayaking, snorkeling, bird-watching and a host of other activities in natural surroundings,” said Michael Sole, FPL’s vice president for environmental services.

“The electric tram is a great resource to help visitors access the beautiful park in a sustainable way.”

Military-grade

Solid performance on in ROTC courses and on the military Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, better known as the ASVAB, will now earn students more significant recognition in school.

Legislation (SB 662) passed without a no vote in the House or Senate will treat military prep classes similar to college prep courses like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. The same piece of legislation will give military families greater flexibility transferring credits in the Florida school system.

The bill also lets the ASVAB, along with JROTC participation, be used as criteria to assess student achievement in college and career readiness.

“Students who choose a path of military service should be recognized for their achievement, and our school grading criteria should honor their bravery, commitment and academic work,” said Rep. Tyler Sirois, a New Smyrna Beach Republican.

“The military provides occupational training and discipline, deeply rooted in tradition. College is not the best choice for every child. Just as we have expanded options for students to participate in vocational and technical training, we now recognize students who choose the honorable path of military service.”

The bill was sponsored by Sirois in the House and Sen. Tom Wright in the Senate. It now awaits DeSantis’ signature.

“I want to thank parents, veterans, and the members of our School Board for bringing this important issue to my attention,” Sirois said.

Balance billing

In 2016, the Legislature protected people from getting bankrupt at the hospital because of balance bills; now, they won’t go bankrupt getting there.

That’s thanks to a bill (HB 747) that ends balance billing for air ambulance rides, which passed the Senate with a unanimous vote and now heads to the Governor’s desk.

Balance billing for air ambulances may soon become a thing of the past.

The problem stems from low Medicaid payouts for airlifts, which have led to companies shifting the costs onto patients with private insurers. Insurance companies pay the actual cost — about $10,000 — but the companies come after patients for the rest.

“We thank the Florida Senate for unanimously granting final passage to legislation which will end balance billing in the State of Florida by air ambulance companies,” said Florida Association of Health Plans President and CEO Audrey Brown Bridges.

“In 2016, the Florida Legislature outlawed most forms of surprise medical bills, and today, by closing a federal loophole that allowed air ambulance companies to continue to levy balance bills against Floridians, balance billing has come to a permanent end in the State of Florida.

“This is a huge step forward for Florida families that will protect them against unfair, surprise medical bills, especially when they are vulnerable following a catastrophic accident or medical event.

“We look forward to Gov. DeSantis reviewing this good legislation, putting his signature to it, and seeing it become law.”

Black Hawk Down

U.S. Army First Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Ret.) will deliver the keynote address at the 2020 Veterans Florida Expo, set for June 6 in Orlando.

For those unfamiliar with Eversmann, he’s a Bronze Star Medal winner who was immortalized in the film Black Hawk Down — Josh Hartnett played the role.

Eversmann stayed in the military long after the events at Mogadishu, Somalia, going on to a 15-month deployment in Iraq during the Surge. He retired in 2008 after 20 years of service.

Matt Eversmann, a Bronze Star Medal winner who was immortalized in the film Black Hawk Down, will give the opening remarks at the 2020 Veterans Florida Expo in Orlando.

“I’m thrilled to speak at the Veterans Florida Expo and discuss how my experience on the battlefield can help veteran entrepreneurs succeed in chaotic situations where others often fail,” he said.

“It’s exciting to be a part of an event that’s equipping veterans with the practical resources and demonstrating what I know first-hand: Florida’s commitment to veterans is second-to-none and offers limitless opportunity.” 

Eversmann’s keynote will draw parallels from his experiences to highlight the importance of leadership, courage, and responsibility within any team or enterprise. Most important is his desire to explain the dynamics of avoiding “strategic shock” where organizations are crippled by unforeseen disasters. 

Veterans Florida Executive Director Joe Marino said, “Matt is perfect for our Expo audience to learn from about how to handle unexpected chaos and still complete the mission at hand.

“Although the stakes aren’t as high as being under fire in a foreign land, the skills learned in the military can be used by any veteran seeking success within a new venture, established business, or a franchise opportunity. Matt’s post-military life is a testament to what veterans can accomplish and will be an inspiration to those attending the Expo.”

In addition to the keynote, the expo will feature a career fair, entrepreneur pitch competition, state and local benefits and resource exhibitors, workshops, and networking opportunities for veterans, those retiring and separating from the active-duty military, members of the Guard and Reserves, and their families. Franchising opportunities available for veterans will be of particular emphasis this year.

Addressing Alzheimer’s

The House and Senate voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would amp up state programs related to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It’s now a gubernatorial signature away from being a done deal.

HB 835, sponsored by Reps. Willhite and Plakon, creates a new position in the Florida Department of Elder Affairs: Dementia Director. The director will be responsible for facilitating coordination between government agencies and programs that are related to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

A bill sponsored by Reps. Scott Plakon and Matt Willhite will establish a new position in the Florida Department of Elder Affairs: Dementia Director.

The new Dementia Director will also facilitate coordination between programs and groups interested in research associated with dementia, and the position will be responsible for collecting and monitoring data related to the impact of Alzheimer’s disease in the state.

Alzheimer’s Community Care was a proponent of the bill, sending a troupe of advocates to the Capitol this Session to make a case for its passage. The legislative success enthuses ACC.

“With this legislation, the Florida Legislature has made this issue a real priority on the state level,” said Mary Barnes, the organization’s president and CEO. “Thousands of Floridians are living with Alzheimer’s and other neurocognitive disorders. They and their loved ones face unique challenges, and they deserve our support.”

Barnes issued personal thanks to Willhite, Plakon and Sen. Stargel, who carried the Senate companion.

“This concept of Dementia Director is model legislation proposed in Florida and 10 other states by the Alzheimer’s Association, and I am proud to lend our support to this effort because I think it will greatly improve coordination between organizations and state agencies,” Barnes said. “As a result, we’ll be able to better serve the Floridians living with Alzheimer’s who need our care the most.”

‘Thank a Lineman’

Coronavirus may have put the Florida Municipal Electric Association’s annual lineworker competition on hold, but they’ve still got something to celebrate this weekend.

Included in lawmakers’ overhaul of the specialty tag system is a new plate honoring the brave men and women who get the lights back on in all kinds of weather.

A new Florida specialty plate will ‘Thank a Lineworker.’

In addition to tags repping Auburn and other out-of-state schools, there’s a new “Thank a Lineman” specialty plate on the way. FMEA Executive Director Amy Zubaly commended the Legislature for including the plate which, for a small annual fee, will help fund scholarships to train aspiring lineworkers — a “New Power Generation,” if you will.

“Thousands of electric lineworkers power the Sunshine State 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The hurricanes that have impacted our state these past few years have highlighted the tremendous effort and sacrifices lineworkers make each and every day to keep the lights on in their communities, no matter how dangerous the conditions,” Zubaly said.

“By establishing this new specialty plate honoring their service, we not only give Florida’s lineworkers the recognition they so richly deserve, [but] we also inspire and support a new generation of community heroes who will go on to power our great state.”

Bonus Instagram of the week

Biggest loser

If the Capitol felt a little lighter this week, it’s not because of the weight off people’s shoulders as Session comes to a close.

No, it’s the weight off people’s hips from the 2020 Biggest Loser competition in the Capitol.

Forty-nine aides and lawmakers collectively lost 104.5 pounds from week one to week nine. And together, they raised $2,500 for Guardian ad Litem child advocates while tackling weight loss.

“Obesity eats our lunch in our health silo every year, and we’re standing up, making our stand against obesity,” said Sen. Bean, chair of the Senate health and human services appropriations panel and leader of the annual contest.

Sen.Montford was declared the Senate’s biggest loser, and he brought his own doctor as the doctor of the day to certify the results. When asked for his advice to lose the most, the Tallahassee Democrat kept it lean and sweet.

Sen. Bill Montford was again the ‘Biggest Loser’ — weight-wise — in 2020. Image via Phil Sears.

“You just gotta work hard and don’t eat.”

For the first time ever, two House members tied for the biggest-losing representative. Both Reps. Cord Byrd and Thad Altman, a four-time returning champion, lost 6.1 pounds each.

Rep. Dotie Joseph was the House female winner — or loser. She dropped 3.5 pounds.

Bean himself lost 4.5 pounds, but he also awarded the two “Steady Eddies” who finished the closest to where they started: Rep. Byron Donalds and Sen. Bobby Powell.

Rachel Barnes, an aide to Sen. Stargel, was the overall biggest female loser, dropping 16 pounds. Tami Register from House administration and Samantha Sullivan from Rep. Mel Ponder’s office finished the top three.

In the male category, the House’s policy chief, Tom Cooper, took bronze while Sen. Ed Hooper’s aide Brian Flaherty snagged silver. However, Nick Carper, Rep. Susan Valdés’ aide, made the biggest cannonball splash by dropping 29 pounds.

“It’s just counting calories, discipline and not letting days where I eat too much, have a bad few days of not losing anything, get me off track,” Carper said.

He started his own weight-loss regimen in 2018, so his plans were mostly a continuation of what he’s been doing. He plans to be at his target weight before the 2021 contest rolls around.

Everyone recognized for their achievements received gift cards to Cracker Barrel.

Safe haven

Coronavirus closures and cancellations are growing by the hour, but Governor’s Club members don’t need to suffer from cabin fever — the club said it’ll remain open.

“Your private Club is the perfect safe haven if you want to avoid the general public,” it said in an advisory to members.

Check your concerns at the door, too. The club said it’s redoubled its efforts to keep the premises as clean and pristine as humanly possible.

The Governors Club will be a safe haven from the general public.

“We have increased our frequency of cleaning and sanitizing our facilities with an emphasis on entryways and food service areas,” the club said. “The entire staff has been reminded of proper hygiene, sanitation and food handling practices. We have encouraged staff to practice healthy behaviors such as staying at home if ill, covering coughs and washing hands often.

“All Club events will proceed as scheduled in accordance with health authority direction. We look forward to serving you and your guests in our clean, relaxed and private Club setting.”

That means St. Patrick’s Day is still on, as is the “hump day happy hour.” The latter is likely to be a much needed and much-trafficked event if Legislature approves the budget and Session ends Wednesday — and doubly so if not.

Capitol Directions

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