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Takeaways from Tallahassee — ‘Justice’s Best Friend’

Specially trained service animals help relieve the anxiety of children set to testify in court.

‘Justice’s Best Friend’

Testifying in court can be stressful for anyone, even more so for neglected or abused children.

To help alleviate the anxiety of children who are called upon to appear, Florida provides one of several highly trained dogs to offer those children some comfort during a frequently traumatic event.

This week, the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program honored these specialized therapy animals that accompany abused, abandoned, and neglected children when they appear in a courtroom.

“Justice’s Best Friend Day” celebrates those dogs that are just the thing to calm children and help them get through their testimony.

To celebrate, the Florida Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) Foundation, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Animal Law Section of The Florida Bar presented the 2020 Children’s Champion Award to the sponsors of the 2017 law — known as the “Justice’s Best Friend Act.” This law expanded the use of therapy animals and facility dogs in Florida courts to reduce trauma for victims and witnesses, including those in cases of child abuse and neglect or sexual offenses, and those involving people with intellectual disabilities.

Honorees in a virtual ceremony on Facebook and YouTube were Sens. Bill Montford and Lauren Book and former Rep. Jason Brodeur. DCF Secretary Chad Poppell, GAL Executive Director Alan Abramowitz and Matthew Dietz of The Florida Bar’s Animal Law Sections served as presenters. GAL Director of Operations Kristen Solomon was the master of ceremonies.

Dog lover Jason Brodeur was a key figure in creating the “Justice’s Best Friend Act.”

Abramowitz says Brodeur, then chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, played a lead role in passing HB 151 and other measures supporting children and animals.

“My own personal back story that I don’t share a bunch is that I was adopted myself and very fortunate to get adopted into a loving home,” Brodeur says. “And it really informs your perspective when you get the opportunity to work with vulnerable populations, because at any given time, that could have been me.”

To watch a video of the virtual ceremony, click on the image below:

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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.

Take 5

The “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

COVID-19 positives hit daily record — Concerns the curve in Florida may not be flattened after all arose after the Department of Health reported days of four-digit increases in positive tests for COVID-19. Numbers released Friday confirmed a record 1,902 new cases in Florida over a 24-hour period between reports, the largest jump since the pandemic first reached the state in March. The number of deaths in Florida neared 3,000. It was part of a troubling escalation over the past week, with new cases exceeding 1,000 for 10 straight days. The last few days have seen more than 1,600 cases added per day, after weeks of gradual decline. Before this week, the record number of cases was around 1,300 during a one-day spike in April.

Florida TaxWatch opens turkey season — The fiscal watchdogs flagged $136.3 million from 180 “budget turkeys” in the upcoming fiscal year spending plan. The group annually spotlights member projects deemed worthy of line-item vetoes. The items put in crosshairs identify a portion of the Legislature’s $93.2 billion budget, which included a record 829 member projects comprising more than $500,000. The biggest “turkey” is a $10 million project in Manatee County for the 44th Avenue East Extension, followed by $5 million for the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota’s Parrish Center, both located in Senate President Bill Galvano’s home district.

Governor plans for full school reopening — Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled a plan to reopen Florida K-12 education at full capacity. Ultimately, local districts will make the call as to when and how campuses go back into operation. DeSantis said $475 million in education-related funding through the federal CARES Act will be available to ensure a safe and healthy reopening. There will also be reserve funds held for issues that arise closer to and during the 2020-21 academic year. Ultimately, DeSantis said the Florida economy will not be able to come back in full without schools in the state in operation.

Miami-Dade reopening begins post-protests — Nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd at police hands delayed the reopening of beaches and other businesses in Miami-Dade County. But on Wednesday, the Florida county with the highest number of coronavirus opened its beaches with restrictions including face mask requirements. A curfew in the city in place for more than a week also lifted. The county remains in Phase One reopening status thanks to the high number of infections there. Department of Health officials reported more than 20,000 have tested positive in the county for COVID-19. Dance studios, gyms and short-term rentals all reopened in the county this week.

Unemployment payments rescheduled — Florida’s beleaguered unemployment system drew fresh criticism after returning to a schedule of paying benefits every other week. The move wasn’t announced ahead of time, catching thousands of Florida residents now receiving checks off guard. The change comes just as federal unemployment benefits tied to the CARES Act expire. The Department of Economic Opportunity had moved to weekly payments to help during the pandemic but had not intended the shift to be permanent. The agency continues to suffer fire for an inability to process the record number of applications that hit the agency amid business closures.

Coronavirus Numbers

Positive cases:

— 69,341 FL residents (+9,348 since June 5)

— 1,630 Non-FL residents (+135 since June 5)

Origin:

— 2,249 Travel related

— 32,779 Contact with a confirmed case

— 2,151 Both

— 32,162 Under investigation

Hospitalizations:

— 11,706 in FL

Deaths:

— 2,877 in FL

Unemployment numbers

As of Thursday:

Claims submitted: 2,454,071

— Confirmed unique claims: 2,262,066 (+126,525 since June 4)

— Claims processed: 2,082,746 (+192,932 since June 4)

— Claims paid: 1,362,224 (+148,520 since June 4)

Total paid out: $5.32 billion (+$920 million since June 4)

— State money: $1,496,097,336

— Federal money: $3,823,784,241

Up for debate

DeSantis and Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran announced this week that 60 schools in 28 Florida school districts were selected to participate in the first phase of the Florida Civics and Debate Initiative.

The initiative comes after DeSantis in January unveiled a multiyear, $5 million grant from the Marcus Foundation to elevate civic knowledge and skills through debate and speech.

“The Florida Civics and Debate Initiative will allow thousands of students across our state to not only learn about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but also give them the confidence to succeed academically and in life,” DeSantis said.

“I commend students and educators across Florida for making civic literacy a priority.”

Each participating school will receive funding to help start the debate teams and cover associated costs such as transportation, coach stipends and membership dues to the National Speech and Debate Association.

“The Florida Civics and Debate Initiative is a terrific opportunity for Florida students to have full lives, advocate for themselves and become active in their local community, our state and the nation,” said Corcoran.

”My greatest appreciation to the Marcus Foundation for their generous funding to support civics and debate in Florida schools.”

To watch a video of the announcement, click on the image below:

Seafood markets

Commissioner Nikki Fried is asking U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to help Florida’s seafood industry recover from COVID-19 in light of a presidential executive order on bolstering the nation’s seafood production.

“I urge the U.S. Department of Commerce and Congress to take bold action to enact common-sense policies that will advance sustainable offshore aquaculture and benefit American farmers, the jobs they support, and the families they feed,” she wrote.

Florida’s seafood and aquaculture industry generates $3.2 billion annually and supports more than 76,000 jobs but has suffered significant economic losses due to the pandemic. And with its unique position to advance environmentally sustainable offshore aquaculture industries, Fried sees Florida as a potentially strong beneficiary.

Nikki Fried is calling on Wilbur Ross to help the Florida seafood industry recover.

“Our department has been actively engaged at the state level in developing the offshore aquaculture industry similarly aligned with the EO objectives for several years,” she said.

Florida law already requires that aquaculture projects have 10-year security of tenure as outlined by the executive order. And the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has a long history with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in developing, updating and managing aquaculture permits.

But the department’s permit modification review process has seen little progress from the Army Corps or NOAA in recent years, Fried said.

“While the U.S. has been a leader in technological innovations and production research, our country has experienced virtually none of the economic benefits due to cumbersome and uncertain federal policies, or the lack thereof,” she added.

The executive order says to scrap “outdated and unnecessarily burdensome regulations,” among other moves, to bolster the nation’s seafood markets.

Price fixing pills

Attorney General Ashley Moody took legal action this week against several generic drug manufacturers for conspiracy to fix drug prices and market allocation agreements.

The 26 corporate defendants and 10 individual defendants are being pursued seeking damages and civil penalties for allegedly attempting to artificially inflate prices and manipulate the generic drug market.

“These major pharmaceutical companies colluded to disrupt the free market — and consumers paid the price,” Moody said. “The defendants in our ongoing, multistate litigation must answer to the public for their conspiracy to artificially inflate prices on these important generic drugs; forcing consumers, including many seniors, to pay more than they should have for the treatment and relief so important to their health.”

Ashley Moody is cracking down on generic drug manufacturers involved in price-fixing.

From 2007 to 2014, three generic drug manufacturers, Taro, Perrigo, and Fougera, now Sandoz, sold nearly two-thirds of all generic topical products sold in the U.S. All three including Pfizer are named in the complaint.

A multistate investigation revealed the generic drugs involved in the price fix included creams, gels, lotions, ointments, shampoos and solutions used to treat a variety of skin conditions, pain and allergies.

A full list of generic drugs can be found online.

More than half the 50 states are involved in the complaint.

Fiscal checkup

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis lauded a pair of financial analyses this week that reported an optimistic outlook on the state’s credit rating and fiscal health.

“I’m encouraged by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s analyses that Florida continues to maintain a Triple-A Bond rating and a stable economic outlook in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Patronis said.

Moody’s report credited Florida’s focus on rebuilding and maintaining the state’s reserve balances during a period of economic expansion as a cause for a favorable outlook.

Jimmy Patronis is touting a rosy economic report for Florida’s fiscal health.

The credit rating agency Standard & Poor concluded that while the short-term financial outlook is uncertain, the state is supported by reserves and strong structural financial management.

Both agencies considered the economic, fiscal and budgetary impact of the COVID-19 pandemic when assessing the state’s overall credit rating and fiscal health.

“According to the agencies, Florida’s steady credit rating and strong financial position is a testament to sound fiscal management practices and healthy reserves,” Patronis said.

“While encouraging, we must remain vigilant as hurricane season is here and experts are already predicting an active storm season. We are not out of the woods yet but together, we’re working every day to get Floridians back to work and safely ramp up our state’s economy.

Instagram of the week

The week in appointments

1st District Court of Appeal — DeSantis appointed Robert Long Jr. to the 1st District Court of Appeal. Long, of Tallahassee, has been a Judge for the Second Circuit since 2016. He currently serves as a Lieutenant in the Navy Reserve. Long, a University of Florida College of Law alumnus, is filling the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge James Wolf.

4th District Court of Appeal — The Governor appointed Edward Artau to the 4th District Court of Appeal to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Carole Taylor. Artau, of West Palm Beach, has been a Judge for the 15th Circuit since 2014 and previously served as the General Counsel for the South Florida Water Management District. He received his law degree from Georgetown University.

1st Judicial Circuit — DeSantis appointed Jennifer J. Frydrychowicz to the 1st Circuit Court. The Pensacola resident and UF College of Law alumna has been an Escambia County Judge since 2014. She previously served as an assistant state attorney in the 1st Judicial Circuit. She fills the vacancy created by the resignation of Judge Michael Allen.

Manatee County Court — The Governor appointed Jacqueline Steele was to the Manatee County Court. Steele is an attorney at McConnaughhay, Coonrod, Pope, Weaver & Stern, P.A. The Bradenton resident and Florida State University College of Law alumna previously served as an assistant public defender in the 13th Judicial Circuit. She fills the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Robert Farrance.

Mail call

With the state legislative qualifying deadline now passed, House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee is looking forward to ensuring the state’s voting system is secure.

McGhee penned a letter to U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Reform, to review whether the U.S. Postal Service is prepared for the upcoming election.

“I respectfully request that you coordinate with the U.S. Postal Service to implement a bar-code tracking system for all mail-in ballots for the August primary and the November general election,” McGhee wrote.

Kionne McGhee penned a letter to House Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn Maloney of New York, asking if the USPS is prepared for the upcoming elections.

“The voters should be able to track where their ballot is at any time in the U.S. Postal System, and when it is delivered to the Supervisor of Elections. The recent stimulus checks proved that bar-coding and tracking could be implemented quickly and effectively; I look forward to your response on how this will be done.”

Some leaders around the country have pushed for increased access to vote by mail, given ongoing concerns about gathering in public during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“What do we do if mail services in south Florida are disrupted around the election?” McGhee asked. “There is no Plan B, we do not get a ‘Do-Over’ on a presidential election. The system must not fail. Slowing the vote silences the voter.”

Florida law requires mail-in ballots to be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day. McGhee wants better tracking capabilities so voters can help ensure their ballots are counted on time.

“If I can order something online, know when it left the warehouse, when it left the post office when it’s on a truck headed to my house, then voters in Florida should be able to track their ballot when they exercise their fundamental right and responsibility to participate in our democracy,” McGhee said.

“We need to know that Floridians’ votes will count. We need to know if there is a coronavirus concern that there is a plan in place.”

‘Office of Industry Rubber Stamping’

Just ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, insurance regulators saw several requests by companies in the state to hike up their insurance rates. Incoming co-House Democratic Leader Evan Jenne this week criticized regulators from approving some of those increases.

With the added unemployment impact from the pandemic, the Hollywood Democrat says Floridians are hurting more than they have before because of the public health-turned-economic crisis. Several companies’ average rates are increasing by more than 20% with many more implementing increases north of 10%, stemming from recent hurricane expenses.

Incoming co-House Democratic Leader Evan Jenne accuses industry regulators of ‘rubber stamping’ price increases. Image via AP.

“Now there’s yet another threat with these insurance rate hikes. A lot of Floridians cannot afford a rate increase of any kind,” he said. “Couple that with the beginning of hurricane season and we are facing a perfect storm of a complete disaster for so many people that really need a break right now.”

Amid the pandemic is not the time to raise insurance rates, he added.

“You would need to be incredibly tone-deaf to not understand that,” Jenne said. “So many Floridians are out of work or on fixed incomes. How can anyone look at this and think it’s a good idea?”

The government is supposed to rein in insurance rates from squeezing out homeowners.

“OIR is supposed to stand for the Office of Insurance Regulation, not the Office of Industry Rubber Stamping.”

PSC Florida Relay System

The Florida Public Service Commission approved the upcoming budget for the telecommunications access service for state’s deaf, hard-of-hearing or speech-impaired citizens.

For a fourth consecutive year, Florida Telecommunications Relay will keep its 10-cents-per-month surcharge for all landline phone bills in the state to continue providing the Florida Relay System. But PSC dropped its budget by $315,000 for 2020-2021 and authorized a $165,000 draw from its reserves to offset diminishing landline use.

“The communications industry is rapidly changing, and these individuals now have even more options,” said PSC Chair Gary Clark. Today’s approved budget is sufficient for FTRI to operate based on anticipated expenses, including any unforeseen challenges, and also to meet the needs of those depending on them.”

PSC Commissioner Gary Clark says there are more choices than ever in the communications sector.

The Florida Relay System facilitates phone calls between people with hearing loss or speech disabilities and other individuals by using specialized equipment and an operator to relay information. Those services are available 24 hours per day each day of the year.

“Florida’s deaf, hard-of-hearing, or speech-impaired consumers continue to be well served by the FRS, keeping them connected to family, friends, and businesses,” Clark said.

FTRI, a nonprofit, has 27 regional distribution centers to assist consumers with specialized phone needs. Florida law requires the PSC to approve FTRI’s annual budget.

Leaders of tomorrow

Attorney Christopher Dawson was appointed this week as one of Leadership Florida’s selection committee members for 2020 — 2021.

Dawson is a shareholder and government consultant in Gray Robinson’s Orlando and Tallahassee law firm. He also is a credentialed lobbyist with the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists and holds two degrees in civil engineering.

Leadership Florida is a statewide organization designed to unite emerging and existing leaders to sharpen and enhance each other with ideas and conversation.

“Our goal is to activate, educate and engage leaders of today and tomorrow through top-level programming and development,” the organization’s website reads.

Dawson’s involvement with Leadership Florida began in 2012 when he was accepted into College Leadership Florida Class XIV.

Congratulations to Chris Dawson, appointed this week as one of Leadership Florida’s selection committee members.

He is also a Connect Florida graduate, a member of the Leadership Florida East Regional Council Advisory Committee and a member of Leadership Florida’s Team London Task Force. In 2019, he was appointed to the Leadership Florida Annual Meeting Committee.

“Knowledge is a key element of leadership, and each Leadership Florida program is designed to enhance understanding of issues critical to Florida, the organization’s bio reads. “Leadership Florida also develops bonds among Floridians who combine their talents and resources to build an even greater Florida, community by community.”

Leadership Florida was created in 1982 by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Book ‘em

A 34-year-old man from Perry, Florida was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison this week for multiple offenses related to armed drug trafficking.

Justin Michael Williams was originally arrested by the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Office on an outstanding warrant for a failure to appear.

Authorities later found Williams in possession 2 ounces of methamphetamine, drug paraphernalia including baggies and scales, and four firearms, including a TEC-DC9 with two high capacity magazines after serving a search warrant.

“Working together, the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Office and federal agencies have removed a serious and dangerous drug criminal from the streets of the community,” said U.S. Attorney Lawrence Keefe.

U.S. Attorney Lawrence Keefe announced the arrest of a ‘serious and dangerous drug criminal.’ Image via the Tallahassee Democrat.

Williams, whose criminal history included prior weapon and drug charges, pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and possession of a firearm and ammunition by a felon.

“I am proud of the hard work and the thorough investigation conducted by the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Office,” said Sheriff Brian Lamb. “I am also proud of our partnerships we have with our Federal Partners. This combined effort has led to bringing this individual to justice. His days of peddling poison and possessing illegal firearms are over.”

Power pros praised

The Florida Municipal Electric Association and the Florida Municipal Power Agency this week touted the state’s public power leaders who got some hardware at the American Public Power Association’s national awards show.

Recognized were Kissimmee Utility Authority board chair Kathleen Thacker, Keys Energy Services human resources and communications director Julio Torrado, and Lakeland Electric.

Kissimmee Utility Authority board chair Kathleen Thacker and Keys Energy Services human resources and communications director Julio Torrado are being recognized as effective leaders in the state’s municipal electric sector.

Thacker received the Spence Vanderlinden Public Official Award for her contributions toward APPA’s goal to be effective leaders and advocates for public power. During her decade of service to APPA and KUA, Thacker has focused on providing affordable, reliable and clean power to KUA’s 79,000 customers while advocating for public power at state and federal legislative rallies.

Torrado received the Harold Kramer-John Preston Personal Service Award, which recognizes individuals for their exceptional service to APPA. He has contributed countless hours to APPA to advance the goals of the association and currently serves on APPA’s Public Communications Committee, Human Resources Committee and Energy Services Committee. He has also represented public power at various local, state and national conferences.

Lakeland Electric, meanwhile, was recognized with a DEED Energy Innovator Award for its “Damage Assessment Restoration Toolset,” which created an easy-to-use mobile solution for all facets of damage assessment and data collection. DEED awards are reserved for utilities that have demonstrated advances in the development or application of creative, energy-efficient techniques or technologies

Due to the pandemic, the awards were online during the Public Power Connect Virtual Summit.

Campus comeback

Florida’s independent colleges and universities have been working to implement sanitation protocols and social distancing measures to safely welcome students and faculty back to campus.

The Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida association announced this week that it’s 30 member institutions are ready to roll out the welcome mat.

“Florida’s independent colleges and universities are adding new features and taking appropriate measures to protect the health and wellness of their students and staff as they return to campus,” said Bob Boyd, president and CEO of ICUF. “These institutions are committed to ensuring their students are provided with safe learning opportunities so they can complete their education and launch their careers.”

Bob Boyd, president and CEO of Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, says his schools are ready to roll out the welcome mat.

One of the first ICUF institutions to reopen will be Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Its plans include requiring faculty, staff and students to wear face coverings, limiting class sizes and staggering class schedules to reduce the number of students on campus at any given time.

“Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is well-positioned for this next step. Our safety focus is unparalleled,” said Mori Hosseini, who chairs the university’s board of trustees. “We believe that a structured, cautious return to normal operations will provide a platform for our institution’s long-term success and better prepare us for the fall semester.”

The reopenings at ICUF institutions come after a monthslong shutdown at most campuses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Though students were gone, the institutions didn’t sit idly by. Instead, many of the SACS-accredited nonprofit institutions pitched in on their communities’ response to the virus, whether by donating PPE to health care facilities, fast-tracking graduation for future health care professionals, or by participating in crucial research into testing and treatment for COVID-19.

Governor’s Sterling Awards

The Florida Sterling Council has recognized the Pinellas County Tax Collector and the USF Federal Credit Union in its annual award recognizing organizations and businesses successfully achieving management and operational performance excellence.

The council announced those Governor’s Sterling Awards and a Georgia Oglethorpe Award for Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Georgia.

Congrats to USF Credit Union for receiving recognition from the Florida Sterling Council.

Customer satisfaction for walk-in customers at the Pinellas County Tax Collector in Clearwater was rated at 98.6% in the 2019 fiscal year while workforce satisfaction reached 90%. And external audits showed zero recommendations from fiscal years 2016 through 2019, paving the way for the office’s third Sterling Council recognition.

USF Federal Credit Union consistently demonstrates sustained high levels of performance, according to the council, including financial stability and expense control, workforce engagement and competing in a rapidly changing technological environment. The credit union also contributed more than $35,000 in hurricane assistance to Hurricane Michael victims, second only to a much larger similar institution.

The Florida Sterling Council is a public-private nonprofit supported by the Executive Office of the Governor. It oversees the Governor’s Sterling Award for Performance Excellence and administers the Georgia Oglethorpe Award.

In recent years, the Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, a nonprofit and academic tertiary care center, has achieved high marks in patient care and a growlingly favorable operating margin. And between 2017 and 2019, its community outreach created 11,000 events and attracted 662,000 participants.

Gallon o’scallops

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission announced the opening of the 2020 recreational Bay Scallop season on June 15 in Dixie County and a portion of Taylor County.

The season will remain open through Sept. 7 and will include all state waters from the Suwannee River to the Fenholloway River and the towns of Keaton Beach and Steinhatchee.

The 2020 recreational Bay Scallop season opens June 15 in Dixie and a portion of Taylor counties.

Daily bag limits are in effect from June 15 to June 30, permitting only a gallon of whole bay scallops in shell or a cup shucked per person.

For vessels, FWC is only allowing 5 gallons whole or two pinks shucked per vessel during that time.

From July 1 through Labor Day, regular season limits take effect and allow for 2 gallons of whole bay scallops in shell or a pint of bay scallop meat per person.

For vessels, a maximum of 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or half-gallon of bay scallop meat is permitted during the regular season.

FWC is urging Floridians to “stow it, don’t throw it” and reminding boaters to secure their trash and empty scallop shells to ensure trash is not thrown into the water.

More information on bay scallop regulations can be found online.

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