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Takeaways from Tallahassee — Happy tax holiday

Time to celebrate the Disaster Preparedness Sales-Tax Holiday season!

Florida is kicking off the 2020 storm season with a jolly tax holiday on hurricane supplies now through June 4.

Making a disaster provisions list and checking it twice might be a good idea this year because the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is predicted to be more active than usual, with 16 named storms, eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes (115-plus mile-per-hour winds) forecast by the Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project. Even before the official June-through-November season started, tropical storms Arthur and Bertha impacted the Carolinas.

Scott Shalley, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation, encouraged state residents to “take advantage of the tax savings and the sales this weekend” — and to shop local.

“When you support Florida businesses, you’re supporting Florida jobs and Florida families,” he said.

It’s that time of year again — hurricane prep. Image via AP.

Items qualifying for a tax break in the upcoming week include reusable ice packs, flashlights and lanterns, fuel containers, batteries, coolers, nonelectric radios, tarps, and bungee cords. All items have price restrictions, including portable generators, which top out at $750. The Department of Revenue has created a publication listing all the items and price limits as well as some nitty-gritty information and examples relating to what does and does not qualify for tax exemption.

The tax holiday applies to online purchases as well as those at brick-and-mortar stores and includes state and local sales taxes. Legislative analysts estimate Floridians will save $5.6 million during the seven days.

The state has compiled a Disaster Supply Kit Checklist — which includes many of the obvious necessities such as flashlights, a first-aid kit, radios and batteries — as well as a new category for 2020, COVID-19 supplies. These would include face masks, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.

The Division of Emergency Management (DEM) is looking at the big picture and making plans of its own to handle evacuations and sheltering if a hurricane makes landfall in Florida.

On Thursday, Florida Cabinet approved the DEM’s 2020 Statewide Emergency Shelter Plan, which was developed in 2019 and submitted Jan. 31, before the coronavirus was on anybody’s radar.

Calling the plan a “living, breathing document,” DEM Director Jared Moskowitz said his division has been working with FEMA, the CDC, and the Red Cross to handle evacuations with COVID-19 in mind.

Plans would include “non-congregate sheltering” such as hotel rooms, and smaller shelters with less than 50 people. Additional precautions would be in effect at more traditional shelters. This includes temperature checks or rapid testing (if it becomes available) as well as isolation areas or special facilities for those who are suspected of having coronavirus. Families would be spaced 6 feet apart, and enhanced cleaning and disinfecting are suggested.

Moskowitz told Cabinet members his division had set aside 10 million masks, 5 million gloves, a million face shields, 5,000 thermometers, and 200 negative pressure systems to prepare for hurricane season.

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Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Peter Schorsch, Drew Wilson, Renzo Downey, Jason Delgado, and the staff of Florida Politics, but first the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Supreme Court vacancies filled — Gov. Ron DeSantis made his fourth and fifth appointments for Florida Supreme Court justices. John Couriel, an attorney with the Miami-based firm Kobre & Kim, and Renatha Francis, a judge on the 15th Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County, will round out the seven seats on the bench. Francis will be the first Jamaican American on the bench ever. Two of DeSantis’ prior picks, Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, were tapped for appointment to the 11th Circuit U.S. Circuit of Appeals, creating more vacancies on Florida’s high court.

Theme park reopening plans approved — All the major parks now have reopening plans announced. Legoland Florida plans to reopen June 1, and won approval from the Governor’s Office after an initial hiccup. SeaWorld had plans approved in Orange County to reopen its Orlando properties as soon as June 10. Busch Gardens won the approval of Hillsborough County officials for how it will reopen to the public, though an opening date has not yet been announced. Walt Disney World, still the big dog in Florida’s tourism industry, will hold off its reopening until July 11 for the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom and July 15 for Epcot and Hollywood Studios.

Unemployment claims drop, struggles continue — Another 173,731 Floridians filed first-time claims for unemployment compensation, a significant drop from past weeks. Still, the number is more than double the highest single-week total for new claims the department ever pre-pandemic. The state has seen about 2.3 million new unemployment claims filed since the week ending March 21. Meanwhile, complaints continue to come in from thousands of claimants who have yet to see applications processed or who say they have been rejected without proper cause. Meanwhile, Leon County Judge John Cooper turned down a request in a class-action lawsuit for courts to take over the process from the Department of Economic Opportunity.

Nikki Fried claims Cabinet left in dark — The Florida Cabinet met for the first time in four months, and Agriculture Commissioner Fried took the opportunity to slam Gov. DeSantis for cutting the body out of COVID-19 response. She was also angry with the failure to meet made it impossible for the Cabinet to address wildfire response during a particularly active dry season. Her requests to have the Surgeon General and Department of Revenue address concerns at the meeting were not met, with neither office sending representatives. Notably, Florida’s only Democrat on the Cabinet was left off DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force.

Pandemic EBT program approved — The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Florida’s program to automatically issue benefits to children without access to free and reduced-price meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. DeSantis announced. P-EBT will automatically issue benefits to the households of more than 2.1 million children temporarily without meal support while schools remain closed during the pandemic. In March, President Donald Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which in part allows for states to issue P-EBT as a supplemental benefit for households without access to meals during the pandemic. Families won’t need to act to receive those benefits, which will automatically arrive in June.

Coronavirus numbers

Positive cases

— 53,114 FL residents (+4,964 since May 22)

— 1,383 Non-FL residents (+82 since May 22)

Origin:

— 2,114 Travel related

— 24,850 Contact with a confirmed case

— 2,002 Both

— 24,148 Under investigation

Hospitalizations:

— 9,982 in FL

Deaths:

— 2,413 in FL

Unemployment numbers

As of May 28:

Claims submitted: 2,210,107

— Confirmed unique claims: 1,976,375 (+235,287 since May 22)

— Claims processed: 1,630,877 (+97,126 since May 22)

— Claims paid: 1,053,310 (+57,265 since May 22)

Total paid out: $3.73 billion (+$978 million since May 22)

— State money: $1,082,133,035

— Federal money: $2,644,981,850

Bundle o’ bills

It may feel like much more than two months from the end of the 2020 Legislative Session, but expect to be hearing about it a lot more in the coming weeks.

The Legislature is once again sending bills to DeSantis’ desk after holding on to approved legislation for months to give time for the Governor to focus on the coronavirus pandemic. DeSantis has until June 10 to act on 25 bills presented to him Tuesday, ranging from infrastructure matters to health care.

One bill would pave the way for broadband internet expansion by designating the Office of Broadband within the Department of Economic Opportunity. High-speed internet allows people to take online classes, to improve communication options, and to telecommute, an essential service as the state continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Ron DeSantis should get his pen ready; there’s a stack of bills on his desk.

Additionally, the bill would allocate up to $5 million of Florida Turnpike Enterprise’s $35 million 2022-2023 budget to broadband expansion, a decision up to the department.

A separate bill would create a master plan to expand the state’s electric vehicle grid and allow the Department of Transportation to construct staging areas for emergency response, add a “shot clock” for utility infrastructure permits, and create cases for utilities to cross rural land while protecting the environment.

Another measure would create the Prescription Drug Donation Repository Program within the Department of Health to try to help save millions of dollars in prescriptions that go to waste each year in Florida to be instead used by other low-income people in need.

DeSantis is also the final voice to decide whether a Jacksonville man who spent 40 years in jail for a crime he did not commit should receive compensation from the state.

The 25 bills come in addition to the 16 DeSantis already approved. But the last round of those approvals came April 8.

Adding acreage

Approval rolled in this week after DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet approved for Florida Forever to acquire the Bluffs of St. Teresa in Franklin and Wakulla counties.

Taking ownership of the 17,080-acre from The Nature Conservancy will help protect and restore the estuaries that recreational and commercial fishers in Northwest Florida rely on for finfish and shellfish.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein says Thursday’s Cabinet meeting was the most productive for the environment in years.

“This acquisition will provide increased protection of water quality and natural functions of this important land, water and wetland ecosystem in Florida’s Panhandle and further our state’s coastal resiliency efforts along the Gulf of Mexico,” said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, who also called Thursday’s meeting one of the most successful for the state’s conservation program in years.

The acquisition will also protect Dickerson, Levy and Ochlockonee bay estuaries by conserving adjacent lands, said Ken Wimmer, the senior representative of the Defenders of Wildlife Northwest Florida.

“These bays provide foraging habitat for endangered sea turtles, specifically, juvenile Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, and other state or globally rare birds, such as wood storks and bald eagles, and sea turtles,” he said. “The uplands surrounding the three bays are an intricate mosaic of lakes, depression marshes, mesic flatwoods, that support populations of rare animals such as Sherman’s fox squirrel and gopher tortoise, scrubby flatwoods, and scrub connected with the marine communities by numerous tidal creeks, salt flats, and salt marshes.”

Fried also joined the praise for the Bluffs acquisition and a separate aquaculture project lease in neighboring Gulf County.

“These projects are crucial for conserving natural lands and waterways and for supporting Florida’s aquaculture industry, especially our Gulf seafood industry, which is still recovering from Hurricane Michael,” she said.

TikTok targeted

Attorney General Ashley Moody called upon the chief executive officer of TikTok this week to request more information on how the China-based social media company looks after the privacy and security of children who use the app.

“As a mother, I have concerns about the risks our children face when they communicate online or download new social media applications,” Moody said. “As the use of social applications, such as TikTok, increases with more children at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and summer begins, it is paramount that robust security measures are in place and are enforced to protect and safeguard the privacy of children who may not be of the age to appreciate online safety risks.”

Ashley Moody has some hard questions for TikToK. Image via Getty.

In the letter penned to the video-based social media company, Moody requested more information on several issues, including how TikTok obtains parental consent before collecting the information of a child and whether the company uses facial recognition software or collects biometric information of users.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires parental consent before the personal information of users under 13 can be collected online. In that vein, Moody also inquired about what measures the company has taken to ensure age verification methods.

“As potential security issues involving social media applications are brought to my attention, I will continue reaching out to these companies to learn more about the protections they have in place to ensure compliance with our privacy laws,” Moody said.

Time to buy

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is encouraging Floridians to take part in the 2020 Disaster Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday ahead of the 2020 hurricane season.

“With the 2020 hurricane season just around the corner, it is critical to start preparing now before the next storm takes aim at our state,” Patronis said. “While many Floridians are still dealing with the financial impacts related to COVID-19, it is crucial to take advantage of this sales tax holiday to save money while ensuring your home and family are protected. Experts are predicting an active storm season, so now is the time to get prepared. Don’t wait until a storm is approaching; it may be too late.”

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis wants Floridians to get prepared and take part in the 2020 Disaster Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday. Image via CFO Office.

The tax holiday begins on May 29 and ends June 4. During the holiday, qualified items such as flashlights, batteries, portable generators, coolers, and fuel containers can be purchased tax-free.

The sales tax holiday does not apply to the rental or repair of qualified items as well as sales from theme parks, airports, public lodging establishments, and entertainment complexes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week forecast a 60% chance of an above-normal hurricane season.

Details and a full list of qualifying items can be found online.

Federal farmer aid

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is urging farmers to apply for the $16 billion available in financial support through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

Those dollars are made available by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though applicants go through their county Farm Service Agency office. Applications opened Tuesday and are eligible for farmers below a certain income threshold.

Nikki Fried is urging farmers to apply for the $16 billion available in the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. Image via SWFL Fresh.

“This USDA support is an important first step in helping American farmers recover from significant COVID-19 losses,” Fried said.

To be eligible, a person or business must have an average adjusted gross income of less than $900,000 for tax years 2015, 2016 and 2017. If 75% of their adjusted income comes from farming, ranching, or forestry, that limit does not apply.

“As applications open today, I’m urging Florida’s farmers and ranchers to apply immediately, as these funds are limited and may be depleted quickly,” Fried said.

USDA anticipates releasing payments 7-10 days after applications are received. Payment will be based on the volume of production sold between January 15 and April 15.

“America’s farming community is facing an unprecedented situation as our nation tackles the coronavirus,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said. “These payments will help keep farmers afloat while market demand returns as our nation reopens and recovers. America’s farmers are resilient and will get through this challenge, just like they always do — with faith, hard work, and determination.”

Instagram of the week

The week in appointments

Liberty County Supervisor of Elections — DeSantis appointed Grant Conyers as Liberty County Supervisor of Elections. He replaces Gina Singletary McDowell, who was suspended from office. Conyers, of Bristol, owns a construction company and is a graduate of Jacksonville University. He will serve the remainder of McDowell’s term.

20th Circuit Court — DeSantis appointed Kyle Cohen to the 20th Circuit Court, which encompasses Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties. Cohen, of Estero, has been an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida since 2008. He is a graduate of the University of Florida and the Georgetown University Law Center. He fills the vacancy created by Judge Keith Cary’s retirement.

Pedal to the medal

It’s awards season in the civil engineering biz, and the Florida Department of Transportation swept the majors in the American Council of Engineering Companies of Florida’s 2020 show.

In a feat more reminiscent of the 1984 Grammys than a roadbuilding fete, FDOT snagged seven Outstanding Project Awards from ACEC-FL.

The 2020 edition saw FDOT land Outstanding Major Project, Outstanding Design-Build, Outstanding Roadway Project, Outstanding Bridge Project, Outstanding PD&E/Planning Project, Outstanding Environmental Project, and Outstanding Special Project.

The FDOT won a Perpetual Pavement Award for a section of six-lane roadway on Interstate 95 in St. Johns County.

“The Florida Department of Transportation is proud to be the recipient of these prestigious awards,” said Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault. “This recognition highlights FDOT’s continued commitment to building a safe and well-planned transportation system to fit the lives of Florida’s residents and visitors both now and in the future.”

ACEC-FL, an affiliate of the Florida Engineering Society’s (FES) Professional Engineers in Private Practice (PEPP), recognizes outstanding achievements by its member firms in accomplishing Florida transportation projects.

Each year, FDOT’s Central Office, Districts, and Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise submit projects for consideration. Awards will be distributed at the Florida Engineering Society’s annual conference in August.

The ACEC-FL came alongside another honor: The Asphalt Pavement Alliance announced this week that FDOT won a Perpetual Pavement Award for a 9.4-mile section of a six-lane roadway on Interstate 95 in St. Johns County.

The award spotlights projects that have proved they were built to last. To even qualify for a nom, a stretch of pavement must be at least 35 years old and never have experienced a structural failure.

Black Hawk front and center

Veterans Florida announced this week that Black Hawk Down veteran Matt Eversmann and entrepreneur Charlynda Scales, an Air Force veteran, will keynote the 2020 Veterans Florida Expo.

The event, initially scheduled to take place in Orlando, will be livestreamed June 18 from 12 to 4 p.m. on the Veterans Florida YouTube channel.

Air Force veteran and entrepreneur Charlynda Scales joins Black Hawk Down veteran Matt Eversmann as featured keynote speakers of the Veterans Florida Expo 2020.

“I’m thrilled to speak at the Veterans Florida Virtual Expo and discuss how my experience on the battlefield can help veteran entrepreneurs succeed in chaotic situations where others often fail,” Eversmann said. “It’s exciting to be a part of an event that’s equipping veterans with the practical resources and demonstrating what I know firsthand: Florida’s commitment to veterans is second-to-none and offers limitless opportunity.”

His keynote will focus on leadership during chaos — a relevant topic made even more so by the current crisis.

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

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

He’s not the only draw at the Expo.

Veterans will also hear from employers, have a chance to pass around their resumes, and tune into panel discussions on job searches, networking, and industries that need the veteran skill set on staff.

“Like the veterans we serve, we have to be resilient and adapt to new circumstances,” Veterans Florida Executive Director Joe Marino said.

“Holding a Virtual Expo is the best way to connect veterans and their families with career opportunities, showcase veteran entrepreneurs in the Battle of the Pitches, bring top-notch speakers, and tout everything that makes Florida the nation’s most veteran-friendly state.”

The 2020 Veterans Florida Expo is free and open for veterans as well as those retiring and separating from active duty military, members of the Guard and Reserves, and their families.

Waiver savers

Sen. Linda Stewart and Sen. Randolph Bracy sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis this week seeking an extension of the work search requirement waiver, which expires Saturday.

Together, the pair requested a one-month extension, citing Florida’s overall unemployment rate of 12% and rising.

“On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of constituents we represent in Central Florida, many of them both without jobs and still awaiting promised unemployment benefits, we are writing to request that you extend by one month the unemployment work search requirement waiver set to expire on Saturday,” the letter said.

Sens. Randolph Bracy and Linda Stewart urge Ron DeSantis to extend the work search requirement waiver for unemployment. Image via Renzo Downey.

The pair also cited current uncertainties with the pandemic and the economy as all the more reason.

“According to your administration’s own numbers, while the number of infections may be slowing, the spread of this disease is still far from contained, and the tourism industry, among others, has yet to rebound,” the letter said. “The conditions which existed at the time you enacted the waiver are no less urgent today.”

The letter, which also included the Department of Management Services Secretary John Satter, ended with the duo urging DeSantis to suspend the requirement as the “economy struggles to recover.”

“While we inch toward Florida’s full reopening, many individuals and employers are still reluctant to abandon caution, and the lack of an abundance of job opportunities reflects that hesitation,” the letter said.

Reef research

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this week announced the launch of the new State Reef Fish Survey.

The survey intends to improve the recreational data collection of reef fish including snapper, grouper, amberjack, gray triggerfish and hogfish.

“The FWC is so thankful to be able to expand this already successful program. The State Reef Fish Survey provides a great opportunity for FWC to work with recreational fishers to improve data for reef fish statewide,” said FWC Chairman Robert Spottswood.

“Accurate recreational fisheries data provides part of the foundation needed for realistic stock assessments and well-informed fisheries management decisions that promote conservation while meeting the needs of anglers.”

FWC also announced that beginning July 1, those fishing or harvesting popular reef fish while on a private recreational vessel in Florida would be required to have a State Reef Fish Angler designation.

Those required to sign up for the State Reef Fish Angler designation include those exempt from saltwater fishing licensing requirements, including those 65 and older, veterans with disabilities, members of the U.S. military not stationed in Florida.

A full list of species included in the State Reef Fish and more information on how to sign up is available online.

To watch a video about the survey, click on the image below:

No easy A

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni joined a petition this week in defense of a Florida statute requiring college students to demonstrate an understanding of United States history and its political institutions.

The petition focuses on a move by the Florida Department of Education to weaken a rule that mandated students to “demonstrate competency in civic literacy” to graduate from a state college or university.

The revision, which was approved on May 20, now allows community college students to satisfy their civic literacy requirement with a grade of 60%.

Thomas P. Crapps of the Meenan law firm filed the petition.

“This makes it easier to graduate from college than from high school,” Crapps said. “To graduate from high school, you still must take world history, American history, and American government, along with this test. But once you take the test, you don’t have to take any college civics coursework. It infantilizes students at the very educational level where you should be challenging them.”

Thomas P. Crapps of the Meenan law firm wants to keep civics education in Florida schools from becoming an easy A.

The petitioners also argued the revision undermines the statute put in place by the Florida legislature.

“We are disappointed to see the Florida Department of Education so determined to undermine lawmakers’ bold efforts in 2017, which could make Florida the national leader in civics education,” said ACTU President Michael Poliakoff.

FAMU rising

Florida A&M University hit a new high in the Florida Board of Governors Performance-Based Funding model, setting it up for a multimillion-dollar windfall to further its strategic initiatives.

FAMU improved in seven of 10 metrics and scored a 73 overall — a three-point increase over 2019 — according to information released during a BOG meeting held this week.

Among FAMU’s critical areas of improvement are the four-year graduation rate, cost to the student in obtaining a bachelor’s degree, and median wages for bachelor’s graduates.

Additionally, over the last two years, FAMU has seen a 12 percentage-point increase in the number of students who graduated without excess credit hours. In the metric of University Access Rate — percent of undergrads with a Pell Grant — FAMU earned the highest score of all State University System institutions.

“I’m extremely proud of every member of our team at FAMU who contributed to establishing this new watermark in our score in performance metrics. This clearly shows our commitment to student success at Florida A&M University,” FAMU President Larry Robinson said after the Board of Governors meeting.

FAMU President Larry Robinson is getting results.

The improvements helped the school move off the BOG’s “watch list” and convinced the body to greenlight its PBF State Investment allocation of $13,322,826, assuming the funding is spared by DeSantis when he combs through the state budget.

“We’re excited about FAMU’s outcomes and overall score in Performance-Based Funding,” FAMU Board of Trustees Chair Kelvin Lawson said. “It speaks to us changing to a culture of higher accountability and shows that we’re leveraging the newly-created dashboards to drive the results.”

This is the seventh year of the BOG’s Performance-Based Funding model. In 2019, FAMU secured $13.7 million after earning 70 points.

The funding allocation bolsters the university’s student success initiatives by hiring counselors and advisers, support for the implementation of strategic initiatives in the colleges and schools, and faculty and student retention.

Fulbright State University

Nine Florida State University graduate students and recent alumni will conduct research or have the opportunity to teach English abroad during the 2020-2021 academic year as a part of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

The Fulbright program was designed to facilitate cultural exchange. Top American students and faculty earn grants to study or teach abroad, and citizens of other countries receive grants so they can teach and learn in the states.

The scholarship is overseen and funded by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and is the largest U.S. exchange program in the nation with partnerships in 140 countries.

The announcement continues a trend for FSU, which has boasted heaps of Fulbright scholars year after year.

Nine Florida State University graduate students and recent alumni will partake in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program during the 2020-2021 academic year. Image via FSU.

FSU boasted nine Fulbright faculty and 10 Fulbright grads and recent alums in the 2018-2019 academic year, the second-highest total in the nation. In 2019-20, eight faculty and 10 students made the cut. Good enough for No. 4.

The 2020-21 academic year does have a curveball, however.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic led the program to put a hold on international experiences. Instead of hopping aboard a jet right away, scholars will ship out in the spring semester.

“Florida State University’s students, year after year, continue to be recognized nationally by the Fulbright program for their proposals for meaningful international research and study,” said Craig Filar, director of the Office of National Fellowships. “This year is no exception; the nine FSU students chosen as 2020 student Fulbright recipients represent the phenomenal dedication and determination to engage with the world through cultural exchange.

“This dedication to building harmony between countries and cultures at the grassroots level is even more important given the current crisis with COVID-19. Congratulations to our nine student Fulbright recipients. They will represent us incredibly well as they set forth across the globe next year.”

Corona Directions

 

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