Takeaways from Tallahassee — Courage, commitment, service

Blue Tally Takeaways (5)
It's the season of hope, giving and sharing.

Ed. note: Takeaways from Tallahassee is taking a break for the holidays. It will return Jan. 8.

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Courage, commitment, service

First Lady Casey DeSantis awarded the Medal for Courage, Commitment and Service this week to five organizations at a roundtable discussion with state leaders and community partners.

The discussion highlighted the work of Hope Florida, a DeSantis-led prerogative aimed at harmonizing state resources with faith-based organizations and other community entities.

The initiative, carried out by Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris, utilizes a new tool dubbed “Care Navigators.” Serving as a personal guide to Floridians, Care Navigators advise individuals in need of various public and private resources available throughout the state.

“By working together with the faith-based community, state partners and private businesses we can accomplish so much more to improve the lives of Floridians,” DeSantis said.

Casey DeSantis honors five groups for outstanding community service.

The initiative also utilizes a new digital platform to bolster the state’s mission. The platform, CarePortal, notifies local churches of in-need families and provides them an opportunity to help.

Using the portal, leaders highlighted that a church paid the rent of a South Florida family in less than five minutes after they first requested help.

“Through Hope Florida — A Pathway to Prosperity, we have been able to transform how state government collaborates with communities to serve children and families in need, and with CarePortal we have a resource to connect faith and community organizations directly with families,” DeSantis added.

More than 6,000 Floridians have been referred to Hope Florida since the program launched in September. Another 7,684, meanwhile, have been referred to partner agencies.

CarePortal has also demonstrated several successes. According to the Governor’s Office, the network of roughly 200 churches has served more than 2,500 children since its mid-2020 launch.

“We have seen firsthand how the Hope Florida — A Pathway to Prosperity initiative has brought together partners across our state who have answered the call to respond with urgency to vulnerable families’ needs,” Harris said. “Under the leadership of the Governor and First Lady DeSantis, we have worked to ensure that we are making a meaningful impact on the families we serve by taking a holistic approach with each interaction.”

More information on Hope Florida is available online. The CarePortal network is also available online.

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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, Christine Jordan Sexton and the staff of Florida Politics.

Take 5

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

DeSantis proposes Stop W.O.K.E. Act — Gov. Ron DeSantis continued his offensive against “critical race theory” with his proposal for the Stop W.O.K.E. Act. The measure, named an acronym meaning “Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees Act,” would codify the state’s ban on critical race theory lessons in schools and extend it to a ban on “corporate CRT.” The plan also would defund schools that hire critical race theory consultants. “I think what you see now, with the rise of this woke ideology, is an attempt to really delegitimize our history and our institutions,” DeSantis said.

Fried levels pay-to-play accusation — Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried stands by her accusation that state university trustees were required to donate $100,000 to DeSantis’ campaign or they would not be reappointed. Yet she provided little to back that up other than anecdotal examples of some big donors serving on university boards. “DeSantis’ appointments are stacked with his biggest donors — and the Boards of Trustees are no different,” said Fried’s campaign spokesman, Drew Godinich. “She stands by her comments from last night, and I think it’s very clear that there’s a quid pro quo to obtain those appointments,” he later added. “It’s obviously false on its face. It would require probably 20 minutes of investigation to be able to do that,” DeSantis said, calling it “another baseless conspiracy.”

Scheppke promoted to Deputy Secretary — Dr. Ken Scheppke became Deputy Secretary for Health earlier this week, expanding his role at the Health Department. Scheppke grew his profile this summer, when he frequently appeared alongside DeSantis to tout monoclonal antibody therapy as a COVID-19 treatment. During Florida’s delta variant wave, he helped the Governor cut the ribbon on monoclonal antibody treatment sites, where those infected could receive the lifesaving drug. “I am honored to serve as the Florida Department of Health’s new Deputy Secretary for Health,” Scheppke said. “I look forward to continuing the Department’s efforts in building a healthier state for all Floridians.”

Sabatini removed from House panel — The House has removed Rep. Anthony Sabatini from a panel for unexcused absences during recent committee meetings. Committee members are only allowed one unexcused absence under House rules, but Sabatini was marked absent at two Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee meetings this year without being excused, once Oct. 21 and once Dec. 1. Rules Committee Chair Paul Renner notified Sabatini of his removal Dec. 3. “It should also be noted that of your 21 committee meetings over the six-week interim, you have been absent for 13, nine of which have been excused,” Renner added. “Of the five meetings of the Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee, you have only attended one meeting.”

Grady acquitted in Keys case — A South Florida jury has found Board of Education Chair and former Rep. Tom Grady not guilty of federal misdemeanor charges filed in October. Officials accused Grady of excavating the water near his former Islamorada property in 2017 without obtaining the proper permits. Grady’s attorneys said Grady did apply for local, state and federal approval to begin the project and disputed the charges from the get-go. The charges came more than four years after the incident, a position Grady’s attorneys homed in on in a previous statement.

Cutting checks

DeSantis and Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran announced Tuesday that another $10 million is headed to Pathways to Career Opportunities Grant and Apprenticeship State Expansion Grant recipients.

Including that amount, more than $30 million has gone to the grant since 2019 to expand registered apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship, and career training programs in the state.

“By investing in career training and apprenticeship programs, Florida is expanding opportunities in a way that will strengthen key sectors of the economy,” DeSantis in a news release. “I am proud that we have been able to award these grants for three years, as we continue to invest in creating opportunities for Floridians.”

Ron DeSantis is getting whiplash from whipping out his checkbook.

Through the 2021 Opportunities Grant, 33 businesses, school districts and colleges are receiving a total of $9.8 million. The apprenticeship grant’s $594,217 total is going to 24 recipients.

“Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, we’ve doubled-down on our workforce education initiatives and these grant programs best demonstrate this,” Corcoran said. “Apprenticeships are time-tested training models equipping trainees with the confidence and skills to thrive in high-demand careers.”

Spreading hope

The First Lady announced Friday that the number of Florida schools that have launched Hope Ambassadors Clubs has quadrupled since last school year.

Hope Ambassadors is a partnership between the Florida Department of Education, Volunteer Florida, and now 100 middle and high schools. Casey DeSantis launched the program in December 2019 with the goal of creating a setting where students can volunteer, mentor their peers and help foster kind and compassionate environments.

In the pilot program, which began in the 2020-2021 school year, 25 schools started Hope Ambassadors clubs and more than 300 students participated.

Hope Ambassadors Clubs are growing by leaps and bounds.

Hope Ambassadors volunteers have, among other things, adopted families for Christmas Connection charities, hosted car washes to raise money for students who cannot afford school supplies, and created recognition programs, such as “Student of the Month” awards, to spread positivity on school campuses.

“It is heartwarming to see the Hope Ambassadors program grow so quickly to meet the needs of our faculty, students and parents. These new clubs will create positive settings for children to volunteer, mentor their peers and help foster kindness. I am overjoyed by the drive and compassion of Florida’s youth,” the First Lady said.

Alongside the progress update, she announced that Simply Healthcare Plans had made a $100,000 donation to the Hope for Healing Initiative to help support Hope Ambassadors programs and to create lesson plans for teachers on resiliency and substance use and abuse.

“At Simply, we’re focused on ditching the stigma tied to mental health and ensuring our youth receive the proper resources and care to strengthen their mental health,” said Holly Prince, Florida Plan President of Simply. “We’re excited to team up with First Lady Casey DeSantis to deliver support in a meaningful way.”

Payback time

More checks are on the way to Floridians who fell victim to a debt relief scheme.

The checks — totaling upward of $340,000 — come after Attorney General Ashley Moody and the Federal Trade Commission acted against a “massive” scam perpetrated by Financial Freedom National and 17 other companies.

Moody said the companies misrepresented debt relief plans and made false promises to consumers. The first round of checks, issued in July 2020, totaled $720,912.

Ashley Moody says it’s payback time.

“These deceptive companies preyed on people who were trying to pay off their debt, making their financial situation worse,” Moody said. “I am glad we were able to work with the FTC to shut down this scam and recover more than a million dollars for Floridians.”

In all, more than $6.5 million will be distributed to victims nationwide in December. Floridians will collect a total of $1 million.

“Corporate defendants tricked consumers into paying hundreds or thousands of dollars per month under the false pretense that defendants would pay, settle or obtain dismissals of consumers’ debts and improve consumers’ credit,” a news release said.

“Over time, consumers learned personal debts went unpaid, accounts went into default and credit scores plummeted.”

Christmas delivery

Florida’s top elected officials received a gift of bipartisan cheer this holiday season.

Fried, the lone Democrat currently serving in a statewide-elected office, continued the annual tradition of delivering locally grown Christmas trees to the members of the Florida Cabinet. On Friday, Fried’s team delivered trees to the offices of the Governor and the other two Cabinet members, the Attorney General and Chief Financial Officer.

“The holidays are a wonderful time of year to celebrate with loved ones and focus on the values and traditions that we hold dear,” Fried said. “We’re proud to contribute to the joy of the season, providing our fellow Cabinet offices with locally-grown, Fresh From Florida Christmas trees.”

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Image via FDACS.

Fried oversees the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is home to the Fresh From Florida program. The department delivered 8-foot Carolina Sapphire trees from Bavarian Christmas Tree Farm in Tallahassee.

Bavarian Christmas Tree Farm is owned and operated by Franco, Sigrid and Robert Camacho, who have supplied Christmas trees for the Cabinet officials’ offices for the past decade. The farm has been a Fresh From Florida member since 2012.

The House and Senate also display their own Christmas trees and other holiday decorations on their chamber floors.

Big Returns

Florida returned more than $27 million in unclaimed property to Floridians throughout the month of November, CFO Jimmy Patronis said.

Unclaimed property is a financial asset that is lost, unknown or abandoned by its owner. Since taking office in 2017, Patronis has returned more than $1.4 billion in unclaimed property to Floridians.

“With the holiday season in full swing, now is the time to search to see if you or anyone you know has unclaimed property in Florida,” he said. “Florida currently holds more than $2.4 billion and I couldn’t think of a better time to have a little extra spending cash in your pockets.”

For Jimmy Patronis, unclaimed cash is king.

The November report comes as Patronis pushes to return more dollars to Floridians during the holidays.

Earlier this month, Patronis hosted a live phone bank in Tampa and urged viewers to call about the unclaimed property under their name.

The results were big. In just under 15 hours, more than 1,000 TV news viewers discovered thousands worth under their name.

“A few weeks ago, we returned more than $340,000 to Tampa residents, and I can assure you, there is plenty more money to be claimed!” Patronis said.

Patronis says one in five Floridians has unclaimed property waiting to be claimed. Unclaimed property is searchable online.

High Court acts

The Florida Supreme Court is targeting “harassing litigation” in noncriminal cases by overhauling various rules and laws.

The High Court is creating a work group to penalize such litigation. 17th Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips will chair the group and must report to the court by June 1.

“[V]exatious and sham litigation in noncriminal trial court cases may be described as legal proceedings that are unwarranted, frivolous, inherently false, without good cause, or filed solely to harass the opposing party; are burdensome and costly for the defendant; and abuse the judicial process and waste limited court resources,” Chief Justice Charles Canady said in the order.

Carol-Lisa Phillips is helping to crack down on harassing litigation.

In a news release, the Court noted that existing laws to address harassing litigation are years old and need review to determine their effectiveness.

The work group is charged with “recommending whether any enhancements to these sanctions or other remedial actions are warranted based on experience, changes in litigation practice, technology, or other factors that have occurred since enactment of those provisions,” the news release adds.

The group will also survey judges, court staff, and clerks on the matter. The survey will ask for recommendations “to more effectively address vexatious or sham litigation in noncriminal cases.”

Other work group members include Ninth Circuit Judge Alice Blackwell, Okeechobee County Clerk of Court Jerald Bryant, Collier County Judge Janeice Martin, 13th Circuit Judge Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe, Leon County Judge Monique Richardson, 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge Andrea Teves Smith, and First DCA Judge Adam Tanenbaum.

Instagram of the week

The Week in Appointments

St. Johns County Commission — DeSantis appointed Sarah Arnold to the Commission this week. The Saint Augustine resident works as the Director of Resource Development for the United Way of St. Johns County. A 2019 Saint Augustine Record “40 Under 40” honoree, she serves on the boards of the Dream Big! Foundation and the Child Guidance Center of Jacksonville. Arnold is a member of the Rotary Club of St. Johns and volunteers with Armstrong Meal Distribution and Read for the Record.

Go, Gus

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis was named a 2021 Legislative Champion by the Alliance of Community Health Plan.

Bilirakis, a Republican, co-sponsored the bipartisan Ensuring Parity in Medicare Advantage and PACE for Audio-Only Telehealth Act.

“I am humbled to receive this award in recognition for my advocacy on behalf of seniors. Protecting access to quality health care options and enhancing the programs available to Medicare beneficiaries is a top priority of mine,” he said.

“As a strong proponent of Medicare Advantage, I know how important this program is to my constituents in providing high quality and affordable health care.”

Gus Bilirakis gets recognition as a health care champion. Image via Facebook.

The Alliance of Community Health Plan represents nonprofit health plans. U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat, also received the award.

Books behind bars

State agencies are partnering to host a book drive for inmates in Florida, marking the first of its kind effort in the Sunshine State.

Floridians can donate books in the main lobby of the R.A. Gray Building at 500 South Bronough St. in Tallahassee, Florida. The donation drop box is available from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from Monday through Friday. It is also available on weekends — 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

“Expanding access to education is a priority for our agency and we appreciate the State Library’s long-standing commitment toward that goal,” said Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon. “We are pleased to join this interagency partnership.”

Ricky Dixon says Florida prisons need books.

Books of interest include fiction, fantasy, sci-fi and westerns, according to a news release. Books in Spanish as well as career and health books are also requested.

All donations will be distributed to prisons throughout the state.

“We’re grateful for the State Library for providing books for our patients at Florida State Hospital,” said Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris. “Part of the rehabilitation process includes enrichment activities, and we are happy that our patients have additional literary options at their disposal.”

More information is available online.

Arrive Alive

Drive sober or get pulled over.

The Florida Highway Patrol is reminding Floridians of the adage and warning motorists that troopers will heighten enforcement ahead of the holidays. The enforcement campaign will run from Dec. 15, 2021, through Jan. 1, 2022, and will target impaired drivers.

“As you travel this holiday season to visit your friends and family, please remember to always consider your fellow citizens and obey the rules of the road,” said Colonel Gene S. Spaulding, Director of the Florida Highway Patrol. “This year, FHP troopers will be on the lookout for impaired and aggressive drivers. Please celebrate the holiday responsibly and Arrive Alive.”

Gene Spaulding wants you to get home safe.

The warning is not without cause. The holidays, troopers say, are a potentially dangerous time for motorists. According to FHP data, 1,169 people were involved in an impaired-driving crash in December of last year.

“Protecting someone else’s life — or even your own — is as simple as putting the keys down and calling a sober designated driver if you have been drinking,” said Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle Executive Director Terry L. Rhodes. “Let’s all give the gift of safety and make the last month of 2021 the safest yet.”

Floridians can report impaired motorists or roadside emergencies by dialing FHP (*347).

Giving spirit

Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy will host a toy giveaway alongside Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and Rep. Christine Hunschofsky will host a separate drive-thru food distribution.

“The gentlemen of Kappa Alpha Psi would like to spread some holiday cheer during this season of giving and provide toys to children in need,” says a news release.

The giveaway will take place in Orlando on 832 Courtland Street between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Dec. 18.

Randolph Bracy and Christine Hunschofsky make the most of the giving season.

“With thousands of dollars in donations and hundreds of toys, Sen. Bracy is excited and looking forward to blessing the children of Central Florida this upcoming Saturday,” the news release adds.

Hunschofsky, meanwhile, is partnering with the City of Coconut Creek and Farm Share to hold a drive-thru food distribution.

“I am grateful to partner with Farm Share and the City of Coconut Creek for this food distribution event,” the Parkland lawmaker said. “There are people in our community who are still feeling the effects of the pandemic and could use a helping hand this holiday season. I hope that this food distribution will lighten their shopping list this holiday season.”

The first-come, first-serve event will take place Dec. 28 at Butterfly Lot behind Seminole Casino, 5280 NW 40th Street, in Coconut Creek from 9 a.m. to noon.

More metrics

Rep. Robin Bartleman and Sen. Shevrin Jones have filed joint bills this week that would create a new system to measure Medicaid plan performance.

HB 855 and SB 1258 would expand what data is collected by the Managed Medical Assistance Program on the 4.5 million people in Florida’s Medicaid program. The data would also be broken down based on common indicators of health disparities including disability, race, age, primary language, ethnicity and sex.

Shevrin Jones and Robin Bartleman: Big Data for better Medicaid decisions.

According to Bartleman, the goal of the legislation is to get policymakers, providers and Medicaid recipients more data so they can make better-informed decisions.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed disparities that exist in our health care system,” she said. “Yet without data, lawmakers can only guess where these disparities lie.

The Agency for Health Care Administration would use the data to provide targeted services to Medicaid recipients. People using the services could also use the data to select the plan that best fits their needs.

“Health care is a human right, and all Floridians deserve equal opportunities to achieve healthier outcomes, regardless of race, age, disability, or ethnicity,” Jones said. “It’s time we take action to ensure Florida’s policymakers have access to the necessary data for making informed, meaningful decisions as we seek to eliminate health disparities in our communities.”

Banner year

The Florida State Parks Foundation has been on a victory tour since securing a park-centric specialty plate. But that wasn’t the organization’s only achievement this year.

The foundation, a nonprofit that supports the Park Service, improved conservation efforts and accessibility in some of the state’s 175 parks and trails. It also grew the organization’s membership to record levels.

Florida State Parks Foundation President Tammy Gustafson recently lauded the organization and its accomplishments this year.

“Through the work of many, much has been accomplished,’ Gustafson said. “Together, we will continue to ensure that Florida’s State Parks remain the best in the nation and a treasure that we can all be proud of.”

The specialty plate still remains the organization’s most high-profile achievement of the year. The license plate cleared its 3,000-preorder threshold in less than 34 days, allowing it to go from a concept to reality. It has gone into production and will be available in early 2022.

Help the state forests by slapping a plate on it.

“The Foundation is truly fortunate to have the support of the many thousands of folks who recognize the importance of our fabulous state parks and the need to protect and preserve them for generations to come,” Gustafson said. “The impact you have cannot be overstated.”

At Silver Springs State Park, the organization built and launched the park’s first-ever wheelchair-accessible glass-bottom boat. The boat has been named Chief Potackee — Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, after the only woman to serve as chief of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The organization funded a new accessible playground at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park. And at Oscar Scherer State Park, they broke ground on an accessible fishing pier.

Save the date

The date of Volunteer Florida’s and Simply Health Care’s seventh annual Suits for Session service project has been announced.

During the drive, the organization is collecting new or gently-worn business attire and accessories on the Florida Capitol’s second-floor rotunda from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Feb. 23.

It’s that time of year again: Suits for Session.

They will be accepting donations of suits, jackets, shirts, pants dresses, skirts, ties, belts, shoes, handbags and more.

Collected clothes will be donated to organizations that support job-seekers in need across Florida, providing them with the attire needed to land their next job.

Volunteer Florida said it will release more details on the event next month.

Capitol Directions

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