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A reckoning to come
A state lawmaker issued a warning Friday to Brevard County Public Schools and other districts implementing student mask mandates in Florida: “There is a reckoning coming.”
Speaking to Florida Politics, Republican Rep. Randy Fine didn’t mince words. He vowed to defend students like 7-year-old Sofia Steel of Brevard County, a special needs student who — he says — was forcibly masked without the knowledge of her parents.
Fine detailed Steel’s story this week at a PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee meeting. School staff, he said, tied a mask around Steel’s head with a nylon rope. Steel is a nonverbal child with Down syndrome.
“There’s a special place in hell for the three people who did this to this girl,” Fine said at the meeting. “This girl experienced real child abuse at the hands of the Brevard County School Board, and I will tell you this: this Session, there’s going to be hell to pay for the people who did that.”
Fine and Gov. Ron DeSantis met Wednesday with Steel’s father, who Fine said was unaware of the incident until his daughter returned home with the mask knotted around her neck.
“The mask was full of saliva. The girl couldn’t breathe,” Fine said at the meeting.
Angered, the father confronted Brevard County Public Schools staff. He learned the county had repeatedly tied the mask onto Steel over six weeks.
“They just forgot to take it off that day before they sent her home,” Fine said.
Brevard County is among a handful of districts that have implemented school mask mandates in violation of an executive order issued by DeSantis.
Brevard County Public Schools acknowledged the situation in a statement to Florida Politics and said an investigation is underway.
“The student was given a mask exemption as soon as the parents made the request to school leadership,” Chief Strategic Communications Officer Russell Bruhn told Florida Politics in an email. “The school district is investigating the allegations made by the family. BPS strives to ensure each student has the best educational experience possible and will continue in that effort.”
Mask mandates — particularly in schools — remain a contentious topic in the Sunshine State and elsewhere. A Republican lawmaker filed legislation Thursday to further thwart vaccine and mask mandates in Florida. DeSantis, meanwhile, announced plans Thursday for a Special Session to curb vaccine mandates.
What might a “reckoning” look like? Fine said: “I’m going to do everything I can to help every parent who wants out of this corrupt, abusive school system get out.”
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.
The “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:
DeSantis demands vaccine Special Session — DeSantis vowed to call a Special Session in November to combat vaccine mandates from employers. The Governor brought expediency to the movement Thursday because of vaccine requirements for large businesses that the U.S. Occupational Safety Hazard Administration is expected to announce soon. DeSantis wants the Special Session to include compensation and employment for people fired or facing adverse medical reactions because of a vaccine mandate. Republican legislative leaders have ideas of their own, including creating a state equivalent of OSHA. Democrats resoundingly oppose the Governor’s move, with many calling it a political stunt.
DeSantis plans strong rights for protesting parents — The Governor also wants the Special Session to result in greater protections to parents of students in public schools. On Wednesday, DeSantis pledged to “fortify” parents’ rights to peaceful protests against school boards that are pushing policies parents don’t like. That may include providing parents the right to seek damages from school districts if the parents are convinced the school district’s mask policies caused harm to children. DeSantis has criticized U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland for considering using the Justice Department and the FBI to protect school officials from threats of violence. “We will do whatever we can to thwart such investigations,” DeSantis said.
Taddeo enters Governor’s race — Miami Sen. Annette Taddeo launched her gubernatorial campaign Monday, adding her to a Democratic field that includes U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. “I believe we can inspire Floridians to raise their sights and elect a Governor to represent all Floridians,” Taddeo said. Taddeo served as Crist’s running mate in 2014, when Crist was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. However, the State Senator noted she’s a lifelong Democrat, a possible dig at Crist, who was elected Governor as a Republican in 2006. But she told reporters she has “tremendous respect for Charlie.” Similarly, Crist said he knows and respects her. “Annette will bring spirit, heart, and important perspective to this race,” Crist said.
Passidomo elected Senate President-Designate — The Senate Republican caucus unanimously elected Sen. Kathleen Passidomo their leader for the 2022-24 term, making her the Senate President-Designate. “It’s hard work to balance the priorities of our state, meet the needs of our residents and preserve and protect what makes Florida so special,” Passidomo said. She will be the third female Senate President and the first since Toni Jennings, who was President from 1996 to 2000. The new President-Designate also made news when she told reporters she opposes the “vigilante” provision in the Texas-style heartbeat abortion bill legislative leaders, including current Senate President Wilton Simpson, are considering bringing to Florida. Citizen enforcement of laws is “not the American way,” she added.
Elections officials: ‘Tone down the rhetoric’ — In an unprecedented letter warning that democracy is under threat from a wave of misinformation, election supervisors statewide urged elected officials to restore public trust in democracy. The nonpartisan plea comes as Americans express a growing distrust in once-revered institutions, such as government, media and academia. Without naming former President Donald Trump, the letter cites the 2020 Presidential Election as a turning point. Trump has repeatedly questioned the results of the election. Though Florida avoided much of the election skepticism projected upon states, including Arizona, some Florida Republicans remain steadfast on calls for a “forensic audit.”
DeSantis has appointed 12 commissioners to head Volunteer Florida, including three new appointees.
The Governor’s three new commissioners are Henri Crockett, Ebo Entsuah, Dakeyan Graham. Two of the new appointees are also former FSU football players.
Crockett, of Pembroke Pines, is Chief Executive Officer of The Crockett Foundation. He played eight seasons in the National Football League after being drafted in 1997. He earned his undergraduate degree in criminology from Florida State University, where he was a member of the 1993 national champion-winning football team.
Entsuah, of Clermont, is a principal with Advanced Energy Economy and a member of the Clermont City Council. Previously, he was a teacher at Montverde Academy and a legislative aide in the U.S. House. He earned his undergraduate sociology degree from Florida State, where he was a member of the football team.
Graham, of Tallahassee, is executive director of Independent Education and Parent Choice for the Florida Department of Education. The 2020 Florida Department of Education Teacher of the Year is a former teacher and band director with Hillsborough County Public Schools. Graham earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from the University of Florida, a master’s degree in educational leadership from Concordia University, and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of South Florida.
The remaining nine commissioners are reappointments. Those include Commission Chair and Gulf Breeze lawyer Kerry Anne Schultz-Battle and Commission Vice-Chair and Florida Lottery Secretary John Davis. Like Crockett and Entsuah, Davis was also a Nole and played on the team in the ‘90s.
The seven others are Tajiana Ancora-Brown, Christina Bonarrigo Villamil, Jayne Cerio, Adam Faurot, Autumn Karlinsky, Kelli Walker and Amieko Watson.
Volunteer Florida, whose CEO Corey Simon is also a former NFL and FSU football player, manages AmeriCorps in Florida.
Tons of drugs
With 21 people dying a day in Florida of an opioid-related overdose, Attorney General Ashley Moody urges Floridians to participate in National Drug Take-Back Day.
The nationwide event allows Floridians to safely dispose of unwanted prescription drugs and other controlled substances, including vaping substances.
“Floridians disposed of more than 29,000 pounds of prescription drugs and materials during the last nationwide Drug Take-Back Day in April,” Moody said. “That’s a lot of medication that might have fallen into the wrong hands were it not for responsible citizens who took action to prevent addiction and save lives.”
The biannual event boasts a record of success. Since 2018, authorities have collected more than 470,000 pounds of unwanted drugs in Florida alone.
Two-thirds of minors who abuse prescription drugs, Moody notes, got the substances from friends or family.
“Programs like this one showcase the excellent collaboration by local, state and federal agencies, with the common goal to prevent tragedy,” said Miami-Dade County Police Director Freddy Ramirez.
National Drug Take-Back Day will kick off from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 23. A list of disposal locations is available online.
To watch Moody’s video alert, click on the image below:
Instagram of the week
The week in appointments
Greater Miami Expressway Authority — DeSantis named Fatima Perez and Richard Blanco to the Greater Miami Expressway Authority. Perez works as Koch Industries’ regional manager for state government affairs. She previously held positions at the City of Miami Beach, The Southern Group and Akerman. The Coral Gables resident earned a bachelor’s in criminology from FSU and Master of Public Administration from FIU. Blanco, of Miami, is Chief Technology Officer for Internos Group. Previously, he was President of planIT systems and helped found the Business Networking Group. Blanco earned his bachelor’s degree in business and management information systems from FIU.
Florida International University Board of Trustees — The Governor on Friday picked Carlos Duart to fill a seat on the FIU Board of Trustees. Duart, a Tallahassee resident, is president of CDR Maguire and CEO of CDR Enterprises. He has served on the FIU Foundation board and is a member of the school’s Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame. Duart is also a recipient of the FIU Outstanding Alumnus Medallion and the School of Engineering’s Torch Award. He earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting and master’s degree in taxation from FIU. His appointment is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.
Good bill of health
The financial position of the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund (FHCF) is “very strong” with enviable credit ratings, its advisory board was told Tuesday.
But the losses from 2017’s Hurricane Irma and 2018’s Hurricane Michael have delivered a one-two punch to the fund. From those two storms, the fund has been required to pay out $9.25 billion to cover losses that the state’s insurers couldn’t.
Irma represented a $7.8 billion loss to the fund; Michael, $1.45 billion.
“Even though our bottom line has been affected by Hurricane Irma losses, we’re still in a very good financial position to recover,” said Gina Wilson, FHCF’s chief operating officer.
According to a report from the advisory board, those losses have reduced FHCF’s projected balance to approximately $11.3 billion.
The fund intends to protect insurance companies from catastrophic losses. It was set up after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992, and several insurance companies went belly-up.
Luckily, the FHCF can issue tax-free bonds to access capital should the state get hit with catastrophes like Hurricane Irma. Also, it’s able to tax emergency assessment on all property and casualty insurance except for workers’ compensation, medical malpractice, federal flood, accident and health — a tax base of $55.9 billion, according to Tuesday’s report.
Highlighting Black history
Florida’s new African American Cultural and Historical Grants program is now accepting applications through the end of November.
Secretary of State Laurel Lee announced the deadline for the grant, which will help fund facilities in Florida that highlight the contributions, culture or history of African Americans.
“This first-of-its-kind program will support institutions that highlight and help to tell the story of the impact of the African American community in Florida,” Lee said. “This funding, provided by the Florida Legislature, will support renovations and boost the development of new facilities at our state’s numerous African American cultural and historical sites.”
With a total budget of up to $30,000,000, the grant program is jointly administered by the Department of State’s Divisions of Arts and Culture and Historical Resources. Nonprofit organizations and public entities may apply for up to $500,000 or up to $1,000,000 with 50% matching funds from other sources.
The Department of State is looking for projects that encourage constructing or renovating a facility with great cultural significance in which no facility exists. Other priorities include projects that enhance the beauty or aesthetics of facilities named for significant African Americans or restore facilities on the National Register of Historic Places.
For seven years, David Sneed has worked to keep the 16-story Doubletree hotel in downtown Tallahassee looking its best as a housekeeping team member.
Sneed has a developmental disability, and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities highlights Sneed’s story this month during National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Sneed’s responsibilities include removing scuff marks, wiping down hall pictures and cleaning the parking garage.
“I enjoy working here and take pride in my work,” Sneed said.
The Doubletree’s housekeeping director, Alma Sohns, says Sneed is very dependable, and she can always count on him to do his job. He shows up for all scheduled shifts and rarely misses work. He’s never punched in late for work, either.
His co-workers say Sneed is not just an employee; he is family. His kind and gentle spirit is an inspiration to all, and their faces light up when they hear him coming.
“We always know he’s around when we hear his voice saying, OK.’ He has such a distinct way of saying that word, and he’s always willing to do what is asked of him. OK!” Sohns said.
During his free time, Sneed enjoys sports, going to the library, exploring historical sites, and dining at restaurants.
Residents will begin moving to a new affordable rental housing development in Springfield, outside of Panama City.
The Florida Housing Finance Corporation and Springfield Mayor Ralph Hammond cut the ribbon at Springfield Crossings on Thursday.
Florida Housing has been at the forefront of long-term Hurricane Michael recovery. At the beginning of 2019, Florida Housing’s Board of Directors committed $30 million in federal housing resources to Hurricane Michael impacted counties. Additionally, the Legislature appropriated $130 million to address housing needs in the area.
“Florida Housing’s Board of Directors and staff understand the devastation Hurricane Michael had on residents of Bay County,” Florida Housing Executive Director Trey Price said. “Today marks the first of many openings to come, and we are proud to work alongside our partners to provide more safe, quality and affordable housing options for families in the areas that were hit the hardest.”
Projected rents at Springfield Crossings will range from $690 a month to about $900 for a two-bedroom unit and $790 to $975 for a three-bedroom unit, and one hundred percent of the units will be set aside for individuals at or below 60% of the area median income.
“The Springfield Crossings development brings much-needed affordable housing to our community,” Hammond said. “I’m thrilled to see this project come to fruition, and we’re grateful to all the contributors that have made today possible.”
Florida Housing, local officials, and partners toured an upcoming 50-unit affordable apartment complex, Hilltop Pointe in Lynn Haven. Projected rents at Hilltop Pointe will range from $637 a month to $907 for a two-bedroom unit, $732 to $788 for a three-bedroom unit, and $1,005 a month for a four-bedroom unit.
Taddeo and Rep. Joe Geller hope to hold colleagues accountable with a proposed bill to increase transparency in this year’s redistricting process.
The Democratic pair’s legislation (SB 530/HB 6053) would remove public records exemptions for drafts and requests for drafts of reapportionment and redistricting plans. The filing also comes the same day Taddeo launched her gubernatorial campaign, giving her a possible boost on a high-profile issue.
Gerrymandering in the redistricting process often favors one party, Taddeo and Geller warned. Because the Legislature draws the congressional and state legislative district boundaries, the minority party, Democrats, stand to lose in the new maps. Minority communities also stand to lose, they noted.
“It is essential that this redistricting records exemption be repealed,” Taddeo said. “I am concerned that even though members have been urged to retain all records, by law, Florida Statutes currently exempts redistricting communications and draft maps from public records.”
Taddeo filed an identical version of the bill ahead of the 2021 Session. However, it never received a committee hearing.
While the redistricting process should finish by the end of the 60-day Legislative Session, Jan. 11 through March 11, the bill won’t take effect until July. However, the proposal would free records from the 2022 Session.
“Redistricting is the public’s business, and the public has a right to know what’s going on. This is really just a part of the transparency we’ve been promised,” Geller said.
Military industry leaders took a moment this week to highlight the economic impact of the defense industry in Florida.
In 2018, the defense industry contributed $94.9 billion to the state economy and created 914,787 jobs, according to data shared with lawmakers. In contrast, tourism ballparked $3.6 billion, and the health care industry generated roughly $5.4 billion.
“I think it’s important to understand that beat tourism in a record tourism year,” said Terrance McCaffrey, a U.S. Air Force retiree and vice president of Military and Defense Programs at Enterprise Florida.
There are good reasons why Florida is home to so many military installations, McCaffrey explained: Florida’s investment in training environments and extensive military testing ranges.
In all, Florida hosts 21 major military installations, which ranks second-most in the country behind California. More than 65,000 active-duty service members and nearly 25,000 reserve members, meanwhile, reside in Florida.
“This defense industry remains stable, even in a COVID environment … Defense is going to be a resilient industry for our state (and) is very important to the economy of Florida,” McCaffrey told members of the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee.
The defense industry presentation was a tip of the hat to DeSantis and his goal of fortifying Florida as the most military-friendly state in the nation.
Florida TaxWatch this week released the sixth installment of its COVID-19 Legacy Series reports, a study on housing challenges caused by the pandemic.
The report, titled “Beyond the Pandemic: Long-Term Changes and Challenges for Housing in Florida,” explains the record price growth Florida’s housing market experienced over the past year. It also raises concerns about the affordable housing market.
The pandemic brought low mortgage rates, millennials entering the housing market, and an influx of remote workers now choosing where they want to live. That drove an increase in demand and fierce competition.
By the summer of 2021, Florida saw median sales price for single-family homes recently rise to approximately $354,000, an 18% increase from the previous year. Florida TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro says that isn’t without consequences.
High demand and rising prices, particularly around Tampa, Orlando and Miami, worsen the state’s ongoing affordable housing shortage.
“We already know that high home prices disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, but it also impacts service, health care, and essential workers at varying income levels,” Calabro said. “If the Sunshine State is to remain competitive, we must work to address this issue and ensure affordable and attainable housing can be used as a means to facilitate economic mobility.”
TaxWatch warns that the affordable housing shortage could hurt economic growth in a post-pandemic world despite Florida’s attractive weather, nature, and low-tax climate.
Ophthalmologists and optometrists predictably still don’t see eye to eye on the question of whether optometrists should be allowed to perform eye surgeries.
At a House public health panel on Wednesday, the Florida Society of Ophthalmology’s immediate past president and legislative co-chair, Dr. Darby Miller, pushed back against optometrists who argued they should be allowed to perform what the ophthalmologists called dangerous and invasive eye surgeries without a doctor’s level of training. Organizations like the Florida Medical Association, the American Medical Association and the American College of Surgeons also oppose expanding optometrists’ scope of practice.
“Optometrists are key members of the eye-care team who are trained to diagnose a variety of vision issues,” Miller said. “However, optometrists are neither medical doctors nor trained surgeons, and simply do not have the experience or the training required to perform surgeries on or around the eye.”
Ophthalmologists are physicians and trained surgeons who complete four years of undergraduate education and four years of medical school, four additional years of ophthalmology residency training. Also, most ophthalmologists go on to complete an additional one- or two-year fellowship, bringing their total educational and clinical training to more than 17,000 hours.
Optometrists are only required to complete a four-year optometry school program with less than 2,000 hours of hands-on clinical training. There’s also no surgical residency required.
“Patients who need a surgical procedure must have full confidence that the person operating on them has at the very least attended medical school,” ophthalmologist Dr. Ahad Mahootchi said. “We must protect our patients and demand that their vision remains in the hands of ophthalmologists — medical doctors and eye surgeons who have the extensive education, training, and clinical experience to safely treat and perform surgery.”
Nursing home priorities
LeadingAge Florida has outlined its legislative priorities for senior living and long-term care for the 2022 Session.
Top priorities include securing Medicaid funding for nursing homes and home and community-based services, addressing the long-term care workforce crisis, retaining reasonable COVID-19 liability protections, and standardizing dementia-related staff training.
Nursing homes have seen a decrease in occupancy because of the pandemic. The pandemic has also raised costs on nursing homes, driving LeadingAge Florida to ask for a uniform increase to Medicaid reimbursements.
Nursing home staffing is also down more than ever. LeadingAge Florida is looking for legislative solutions to recruiting, training and retaining senior living professionals.
“The workforce shortage in senior living has long been documented, but has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said LeadingAge Florida President and CEO Steve Bahmer.
“This is a complex, multifaceted crisis that is going to require an equally complex set of solutions. Florida has the best there is to offer in senior living services, but without decisive action, the instability in the long-term care workforce will have negative impacts on access to care, quality of care and quality of life for our state’s most vulnerable population.”
Florida State University earned national recognition for its ongoing efforts to increase degree completion.
The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities named FSU a finalist for its 2021 Degree Completion Award. FSU says student success, including addressing equity gaps, is at the heart of its mission.
“This recognition from the APLU is a testament to FSU’s commitment to educational equity, and I’m so proud of our faculty, staff and students for their dedication and hard work in carrying out our mission,” said Sally McRorie, FSU provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs. “We are proving that demographics are not destiny — that with the right levels of engagement, challenge and support, all our students can achieve at the highest levels.”
In 2009, students who entered the university had a 62% graduation rate, but that rate was 53% for Black students and 58% for Pell-eligible students. Now, FSU has achieved a record-high 74% four-year graduation rate and has virtually eliminated graduation gaps by race, ethnicity and income level.
“Florida State has increased graduation rates by creating a culture of student success,” said Joe O’Shea, associate provost and dean of Undergraduate Studies. “Every day, our university community asks what else we can do to help our students reach their full potential.
“There are so many ways in which we are supporting students, in and out of the classroom — expanding first-year student engagement programs, redesigning courses and the way we teach, investing in experiential learning, adopting new approaches to advising, and helping first-generation college students from transition to college through graduation.”
Wall Street Journal White House reporter Mike Bender is returning to Tallahassee, one of the many places he earned his chops, but just for a minute.
Bender will be sitting down Thursday with newsman Gary Fineout during a special stop on his promotional tour for his first book, “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost,” about the final 15 months of Trump’s presidency.
Bender and Fineout will chat up Florida politics, the 2022 midterms, tidbits from the book, and who knows what else.
Midtown Reader will host the interview, Q&A, and book signing at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 28.
Bender promises the book is an exciting, unique read, with bits like the time Trump cold-called him while he was at a computer repair shop in a suburban Virginia strip mall and the time he was left alone for a half-hour in the Oval Office.
Apart from selling a few books, Bender’s most excited to be back in Tallahassee:
“Tallahassee was where my first child was born. It’s where I made some lifelong friends. It’s where I was lucky enough to work for the Palm Beach Post and Tampa Bay Times — two crown jewels in Florida’s rich tradition of newspaper journalism — and cover a pivotal time in Florida politics, from Jeb & Marco to Marco & Charlie to Charlie & Barack to the carpet-bombing campaign of Rick Scott that foreshadowed the anti-establishment rage that would soon ripple across the country.”