Sixty Days — A prime-time look at the 2021 Legislative Session:
The Last 24
On Tuesday, the Senate passed a controversial bill (HB 1557) governing classroom instruction on LGBTQ matters. The bill, labeled “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents, cleared the chamber on a mostly party-line vote, with Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes and Jennifer Bradley crossing the aisle to vote against it. Its passage comes after weeks of heated debate among lawmakers, protests by students at the Capitol, and a lampooning on SNL. The bill now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it into law. But LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida said the fight is far from over. Shortly after the vote, the organization announced plans to challenge the bill’s implementation in court. Here’s your nightly rundown.
Funding boost. The House and Senate agreed to send an extra $212 million in Medicaid funding to nursing homes to address staffing shortages.
Inflation fund. Top state budget negotiators have agreed to set aside $1 billion in a fund to address the impacts of inflation on state contracts.
Just kidding! House budget negotiators have scaled back their plan to hold back $200 million from school districts that flouted state laws on mask mandates.
Pay bump. Budget negotiators agreed to hike pay by 5.4% across the board and set a $15 an hour minimum wage for state employees.
Firewall funding. The House and Senate agreed to set aside more than $87 million to fortify the state’s cybersecurity infrastructure.
New big house. The criminal and civil justice budget is set, including spending $645 million for a new prison.
Jet set. Lawmakers agreed to spend $20 million to purchase two new state airplanes.
Home court advantage. Lawmakers are creating a new appeals court headquartered in Lakeland — the hometown of Senate Budget Chief Kelli Stargel.
Scholarship money. It looks like the Benacquisto Scholarship Program has made the grade with appropriations leaders, snagging $2.15 million in the budget.
Quote of the Day
“I shared on the floor my own deeply personal story and challenges coming out and the rejections faced in my church, from friends, from members of my family. That is the last thing any of us should wish upon any individual. And yet, in the last few days, many in Tallahassee and across the state have said the quiet part out loud: insulting educators with claims that public schools are ‘socially engineering’ children, labeling members of the LGBTQ community and allies as ‘groomers.’ This hostile assault on Floridians isn’t about parental rights. It is about control.”
— Sen. Shevrin Jones, on the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill.
Bill Day’s Latest
Three wildfires in Florida’s Panhandle have been raging for six days, now covering more than 29,000 acres. Thousands have been forced to evacuate their homes.
The fires are raging along the path that Hurricane Michael took in 2018. David Godwin, a fire ecologist and program director of the University of Florida Southern Fire Exchange, said that conditions caused by the Category 5 hurricane has allowed the wildfires to flourish.
Florida Politics spoke with Godwin about how the hurricane created the conditions for the wildfire to spread and how firefighters and other emergency responders can fight it.
Q: How did Hurricane Michael create the circumstance that these fires occurred in?
Godwin: Hurricane Michael had a tremendous impact on the forested areas of the Florida Panhandle, and particularly in some of the areas being impacted by wildfires right now. Hurricane Michael took a lot of the forests that were standing and flattened those trees into a jumbled mess on the ground. That increases what we call the fuel load, the stuff available to burn either in a prescribed fire or in a wildfire, tremendously. In most of our southeastern forest ecosystems, you might have a fuel load of around 1.8 tons per acre of material on the ground that’s available to burn. Surveys after Hurricane Michael found areas most impacted by the storm had fuel load over 100 tons per acre. Even now, in 2022, there’s still a tremendous amount of material on the ground in these areas that, after prolonged dry periods, can be available to burn. There’s still this big jumbled mess, post hurricane in some of these places that makes access for firefighters extremely difficult, and much more dangerous. And so the difficulty of managing these wildfires in post hurricane sites is much more difficult than areas that haven’t been so severely impacted by storms.
Q: How do firefighters and emergency responders fight a 28,000-acre fire?
Godwin: They’re gonna have multiple different strategies in place. When you have a fire that large, you can’t just go and put it out with a bunch of water. Water does play a key role in what we call Point protection. Firefighters will strategically place fire engines and equipment and sometimes pumps to try and help protect individual homes, buildings, neighborhoods, or structures from fires. But that doesn’t really help put out the main front of the fire. To fight it, they’ll use large equipment, big tractor plows, big bulldozers to try and create fire lines, or these linear strips of bare soil that kinda look like really bumpy dirt roads. These provide fuel brakes that will help to keep the fire from advancing. Sometimes, what they’ll do is they’ll use fire to fight fire. In those cases, they’ll do what are called burnouts or back burns, depending on the terminology used. What that means is they’ll the firefighters will intentionally use these fire breaks or fire lines that they have established, and then they’ll go along, and they’ll intentionally light fires off of those that are designed to remove burnable material, remove fuel between that fire line and the active wildfire so that it can’t continue to grow.
After a fire has gone through an area, they’ll still be small patches that are burning. The important part of fighting the fire is kind of called mop up. They’ll go back and try and put out small flaming patches here and there that may still be burning. It’s very important because those small patches that continue to smolder and burn after the main wildfire has gone through could, weeks down the road, rekindle a future wildfire by blowing embers to unburnt wood. That’s an important, less glamorous part is to go back afterward and make sure those small patches are out.
Q: It is forecast to rain later this week. How does rain help fight the fire? Does it make it any more difficult for those responding to it?
Godwin: I think just about everybody who’s going to be working these fires and are watching the fires right now are thankful for the rain coming. The rain essentially increases the moisture of the fuels. The sticks, twigs and leaves, all the way up to the larger materials, depending on how much rain we get, will respond to changing atmospheric conditions. Increased fuel moisture will decrease your fire behavior. That’s a good thing. When the fire behavior goes down, because of more moisture, that’ll provide the firefighters and incident management teams better opportunities to try and take actions to try and stop the wildfires. Increased fuel moisture from rain and relative humidity makes what we call spotting less likely. That means, if an ember is blown by the wind, and outside of the wildfire, or across a fireline, the wetter it is, the more humid it is, the less likely that ember will ignite and start a new fire.
In these areas, it appears that some of the fires are burning in particularly swampy areas. Depending on how much rain we get in those swampy areas, if it becomes particularly saturated, that can make access to those areas more difficult for firefighters and fire crews who are working with heavy equipment. If it gets too wet in those swampy areas, they may not be able to drive the equipment in to establish fire lines to try and help stop fire. So the rain is certainly going to be welcome, no doubt, from these incident management teams. But depending on how much rain we get, that may make some of the fire management techniques and challenges more difficult if things get really swampy in there.
Some of the most heart-wrenching discussions during a Legislative Session surround bills designed to compensate those who suffer injuries and loss at the hands of a state or local government official.
Under the centuries-old theory of sovereign immunity, there is a cap — currently $200,000 — on how much state and local governments can pay to people awarded a settlement in court. To receive the rest of a settlement, the Legislature must approve what’s known as a claims bill.
On Tuesday, lawmakers sent four claims bills to the Governor, and lobbyists played a key role in getting each of them across the finish line. Though the claims bill process allows lobbyists to collect as much as 25% of the settlement amount, few lobbyists charge the full amount, allowing the victims to keep more of the funds.
SB 58 will provide $3.8 million to create a life care plan for Yeilyn Otero, a paraplegic child who suffered catastrophic injuries due to a car crash with a Miami-Dade County official. Led by Matt Forest of Ballard Partners, the lobbying firm representing Otero is entitled to receive $760,000 out of the settlement proceeds; its fee will be $190,000.
SB 70 will provide $3.2 million to Donna Catalano, who suffered traumatic injuries due to a head-on collision with a Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services employee. The Southern Group’s Chris Dudley was the lead lobbyist on the bill. Though TSG can take a $635,000 cut, it will collect $158,750.
SB 74 will provide $5 million to minor child Harry Augustin Shumow for damages sustained as a result of the negligence of Jackson Memorial Hospital. Josh Aubuchon and Mark Delegal of Delegal Aubuchon handled the lobbying effort and agreed to a discount rate — they will receive $250,000 out of the $1 million they are authorized to collect.
Finally, SB 80 will provide $7.5 million in equal payments to the three minor children of Christiea Jones, who were all critically injured after a car collision with a Florida Highway Patrolman on I-75. Rob Schenck of The Legis Group was the chief lobbyist on the bill and though his firm is entitled to receive $1.5 million, it will accept just $375,000.
The Next 24
— The Senate will hold a floor Session at 10 a.m.
— The House will hold a floor Session at 10:30 a.m.
— The Senate Special Order Calendar Group will meet in Room 404 of the Senate Office Building. The meeting begins 15 minutes after the floor Session adjourns.