Two Tampa-area legislators are proposing bills that would eliminate the $10 fee credit reporting agencies charge to freeze your credit.
The bills, sponsored by Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would make it free to place or remove a security freeze on an existing credit report. Only two other states prohibit such "freeze fees."
"It's going to pass bipartisan, I'm sure," Harrison said. "This is one of those types of bills that will pass unanimously."
The bill passed unanimously in one House committee Wednesday.
Such fees are considered an "insult to injury" after you've had your identity stolen. Typically, the first step after such a breach is to ask Equifax, TransUnion or Experian to freeze your credit, so that thieves can't take out a credit card or other credit in your name.
But those companies can charge Floridians $10 to place a freeze or remove it. Other states' fees generally range from $2 to $10.
When more than 100 million Americans had their personal information stolen after Equifax was breached last year, consumers were outraged to find that they would have to pay Equifax up to $10 for the company to freeze their credit. The company eventually waived the fees temporarily.
"You're victimized once having your identity stolen, and then you have to pay to clean up the mess that a criminal made in your life," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said at a press conference in support of the bills Wednesday.
Florida's Chief Financial Officer, Jimmy Patronis, called it "unacceptable."
He said identity theft could happen to anyone.
"It happened to me recently," he said. "I had a credit card breach. I had to jump through the hurdles of the credit card companies to let them know I was getting spending alerts."
He said Florida had the second highest per-capita rate of complaints over identity theft issues in the country, and Miami, Naples and Tallahassee were among the top 10 metro areas for the complaints.
The first day of session was jam-packed for the Florida Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, which passed several reform bills Tuesday with support from civil rights groups and mixed reactions from law enforcement.
Bills that were approved by the committee include measures to ease sentences for theft convictions for items worth less than $1,500, create an additional type of conditional release for inmates with "debilitating illnesses" and grant legal immunity to those who call emergency services in overdose situations.
The committee also voted to advance a bill designed to close a "loophole" in statute that requires internet providers to alert their customers when they have been subpoenaed for child pornography on that person's computer, potentially giving them time to destroy evidence or even harm the children involved.
"This bill will literally save the lives of children," said a lieutenant from Brevard County Sheriff's Office who spoke during the meeting.
Many of the bills passed Tuesday were sponsored by the chairman of the committee, Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando.
While not yet holding a vote, he also foreshadowed one of his other bills by having multiple speakers, including Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, speak about supervised bail programs, like the ones used in Pinellas County since 2014. These programs, now used in several other states, provide alternatives to traditional bail bonds, which can trap the poor in jail and unnecessarily fill jails with people who would show up for their court dates regardless, the speakers said.
In contrast to Gualtieri, the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a conservative criminal justice reform group that represents law enforcement in several red parts of the state, declared their opposition to several of these proposals.
"Every sheriff in the state doesn't agree with what Sheriff Gualtieri is doing," said Barney Bishop, CEO of the group. "It's a progressive idea … let's pilot this where sheriffs want to do it, let's not force it on a sheriff."
As sexual misconduct issues continued to overshadow policy in the Florida Legislature Tuesday, House Speaker Richard Corcoran predicted that with Sen. Jack Latvala's departure "the Senate will have a revival" and called Latvala's "reprehensible behavior" a constant dividing force in the upper chamber.
But in what could be an ominous sign of the bitter divisions between them, Negron defended Latvala as a lawmaker who, as budget chair, worked to attend to the needs of both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate causes. Negron also repeated his position that the Senate will have "zero tolerance" for sexual harassment but wouldn't buy Corcoran's claim.
"That a narrative some folks may want to get out,'' he said. "That's not how I view the world."
Negron said he spoke with Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, about how she and Sen. Oscar Braynon handled the statement they released Tuesday, confirming their extramarital affair and saying they had asked their families for forgiveness.
"I've seen no evidence whatsoever that their personal relationship has adversely affected how the Senate is run,'' Negron said. "To me, it's a personal matter between them and their families and I intend to move on and don't intend to comment further."
Corcoran, a longtime Latvala adversary, was adamant that the former senator's wrongs far exceeded those of Flores and Braynon.
"I will not defend somebody engaging in an extramarital affair but what I will defend is it's a hell of a lot different than being a sexual predator,'' he said. "It's a hell of a lot different than raping someone. It's a hell of a lot different than committing a crime. It's a hell of a lot different than being subject to bribery."
He said he was referring to Latvala's recent resignation amid allegations of sexual harassment and corruption. "Those are the allegations on the other front,'' he said.
Corcoran defended the ability of political consultants to hire private investigators with surveillance cameras as legal and expected. "In a democracy, comport yourself,'' he said. "Wake up everyday and do the best you can do to be a good person. We're all going to fail. We're all going to fall short but recognize that in this era the thing you fall short on could end up on video and, in most cases, is."
Senate Rules Committee chair Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, was among a handful of female legislators and lobbyists who wore black in an effort to show unity with the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.
She said she plans to release a new Senate administrative policy within the next week to modify the Senate's sexual harassment policy. She said she has incorporated best practices from other states and sought feedback from senators across party and gender lines.
The proposal will be updated more frequently and the Senate will also impose a new rule that requires sexual harassment training for senators "to make sure that everyone knows its mandatory."
"I support every effort to make sure that people feel comfortable to come forward,'' she said. "I think this is time to send a message that women and men have a process by which people will be held accountable."
Benacquisto said the Flores and Braynon affair is "a private matter between the two senators.
"I think their priority is twofold, with their families and then serving their constituents the balance of this legislative session."
She acknowledged that with the emergence of social media, no public official can escape having private issues emerge in the public eye.
"We are all public officials and we stand in the public square, and we do that willingly,'' Benacquisto told reporters. "We all have an obligation to behave in a way that honors the time away from our family and our service on behalf of our constituents."
Benacquisto said she takes "great exception" to the concern expressed by many lobbyists and staff that the emergence of sexual harassment allegations has had a chilling effect on relationships between women and men in the state Capitol.
"I just take exception with folks commenting that people will be at a disadvantage and they can't do their job,'' she said. "I do my job. A lot of women do their job. You do your job and I think you're doing alright."
In his annual State of the State speech, Gov. Rick Scott took credit for the bill last year to pass a public records exemption for state workers who alleged sexual harassment.
"With the help of all of you in this chamber, we passed a law to protect state employees who were victims of sexual harassment,'' he said. "Working together, we took a step forward to protect those in state government who were victimized. But let's be clear, more has to be done."
He noted that last month he signed an executive order that outlines a new process sexual harassment training, investigating and recovery for victims at his state agencies and urged the Legislature and all Cabinet agencies "to follow our lead and do the same."
He encouraged lawmakers to pass legislation this year "to protect state employees that witness their colleagues being harassed or victimized" so that people "feel encouraged" to come forward in an investigation.
"Unfortunately, we have seen this play out all over the country, including Tallahassee,'' he said. "Things have to change. It has to start here and it has to start in this building. The people of Florida deserve much better than what they are reading about in the news. It's very important that we all stand together and send a very strong message: Florida stands with victims.''
A bill that would allow police to pull drivers over and ticket them for texting while driving passed its first House committee on Tuesday.
The bill passed unanimously, despite concerns from Wengay "Newt" Newton, D-St. Petersburg, that the ban would lead to more police profiling of black drivers. The bill still has to pass in several more House and Senate committees, then pass the Senate and House, before Gov. Rick Scott can pass it into law.
Currently, texting while driving is a secondary offense, meaning that police can ticket someone for texting, but only if police pull the driver over for another reason, like driving without a seatbelt.
Some people said the bill doesn't go far enough, however.
Demetrius Branca, whose 19-year-old son was killed by a distracted driver while driving from work to college in 2014, said it was a "watered down, marginal bill."
He said the bill should make any use of a cellphone within a car illegal. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, and Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, would not restrict using a phone for turn-by-turn directions or for making phone calls.
"It's unacceptable," Branca said.
Only three other states make texting while driving a secondary offense.
Slosberg agreed that the bill should be tougher, but "it's a step in the right direction."
Newton had concerns that the bill could give police what he feels is another reason to profile black drivers.
A 2014 study by the American Civil Liberties Union that found that African Americans were nearly twice as likely as whites to be stopped for violating a state law that requires motorists to wear seat belts.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran opened the legislative session Tuesday with a set of fiery fiscal promises and a call on the chamber to be a "house of reformers" during the next two months.
Corcoran, who is in his final term and is considering a run for governor after the session ends, highlighted several of his legislative priorities, including a bill that would ban sanctuary cities in the state and policies that would expand school choice. Setting up a clash with Gov. Rick Scott's plan to grow funding for K-12 schools through increased local property taxes, Corcoran also vowed to resist raising taxes on individuals or businesses or dipping into the state's fiscal reserves — "the Florida House will not surrender a single penny."
The Pasco County Republican also turned his fire on the city of Tampa for what he has called a tax but what the city describes as anything but.
At issue is a $1.50-per-night surcharge on rooms at 14 hotels in downtown Tampa and Ybor City. The City Council authorized the surcharge last year at the request of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association. The money, an estimated $1.2 million a year, is earmarked for marketing that would benefit the participating hotels.
Corcoran, whose office has filed a suit targeting what he characterizes as an illegal tax, contended that the money will actually go for a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
"Wrong as usual," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn tweeted: "Assessment was requested by the hotels, imposed on themselves voluntarily and has nothing to do with the TB Rays. City merely a pass through. #factsmatter."
Corcoran made reference just once to the sexual harassment allegations that have rocked the state capital in recent months, noting that "long before scandals, this House of Reformers raised the issue of sexual harassment and insisted that every single person in this process will be treated with dignity and respect."
Senate President Joe Negron had said there would be "zero tolerance" for instances of sexual harassment in his preceding speech in the adjacent chamber, after the resignations of Sens. Jeff Clemens, D-Atlantis, and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
Missing too from Corcoran's prepared remarks were mentions of the opioid crisis or Hurricanes Irma or Maria, though Puerto Rico representatives were in the audience for the State of the State.
In response to House Speaker Richard Corcoran's comments on sanctuary cities, House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said House Democrats would oppose the bill and called Corcoran's comments "political theater."
"Let's be clear, there are no 'sanctuary cities' in Florida," she said in a statement. "It's a waste of our time and the taxpayers' money to come up here for sixty days and debate legislation that is clearly unconstitutional and will be struck down by a judge almost instantly if it becomes law."
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this story.
Photo: Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times
Senate President Joe Negron opened the 2018 Legislative Session by vowing to crack down on sexual harassment, saying the Senate has "zero tolerance for sexual harassment."
"I would like to begin today by addressing a very important issue that addresses not only the Florida senate, but also our counterparts in Congress, the entertainment industry, employers large and small across the country, and our culture in general," Negron said.
"Let me be clear: The Florida Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or misconduct of any time against any employee or visitor," he said.
Allegations of sexual harassment have promised to overshadow the Legislature since last fall, when reports of sexual harassment against Negron's then-budget chair, Sen. Jack Latvala, surfaced.
In November, the Stuart Republican ordered an investigation into the allegations, which eventually led to Latvala's resignation.
He added that the Senate, led by Senate Rules Chair Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, is working to revise its administrative policies regarding harassment.
"I am committed to ensuring we all have a safe workplace environment to do the people's business," Negron said Tuesday.
Negron, is in his last session as Senate president, also emphasized expanding Bright Futures scholarships for college students and addressing the state's opioid crisis.
He also said he supported Scott's push for raises for state law enforcement, and that he supported House Speaker Richard Corcoran's efforts toward "school choice."
"I don’t love my children enough to homeschool them," he quipped. "But I respect the decision of parents to homeschool theirs."
The Florida Legislature was abuzz Tuesday morning after an anonymous website was published, claiming to have photographic evidence of an affair between state Sens. Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens and Anitere Flores of Miami.
Shortly before the annual legislative session began, the two issued a joint statement saying they "do not want gossip and rumors to distract from the important business of the people." However, they acknowledged "our longtime friendship evolved to a level that we deeply regret."
"We have sought the forgiveness of our families, and also seek the forgiveness of our constituents and God," the statement read. "We ask everyone else to respect and provide our families the privacy that they deserve as we move past this to focus on the important work ahead."
Here is their full statement:
"As this 2018 session of the Florida Legislature gets underway, we do not want gossip and rumors to distract from the important business of the people. That's why we are issuing this brief statement to acknowledge that our longtime friendship evolved to a level that we deeply regret. We have sought the forgiveness of our families, and also seek the forgiveness of our constituents and God. We ask everyone else to respect and provide our families the privacy that they deserve as we move past this to focus on the important work ahead."
When Florida legislators open their annual session on Tuesday, many women will be wearing black to send the same message of solidarity with the #MeToo movement as Hollywood stars did at the Golden Globes.
The initiative is expected to cross party lines and position, include Democrats and Republicans, elected officials and lobbyists, agency and legislative staff and members of organizations, said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. "A common message of strength and transparency."
Because of the recent resignation of Sens. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, nearly 1 million Floridians will lose their representation during the session, Goodman said. "Electeds play, voter pay."
The idea began organically through a series of Tweets and emails Monday night when attendees to Monday's Golden Globe awards in Hollywood dressed in black in support of #TimesUp, a movement, said Samantha Sexton, a Tallahassee lobbyist.
"Many of us have not been assaulted but we know women not all women who have may have a voice, an ability to speak out,'' Sexton said. "We feel for them."
The #TimesUp initiative was launched by Hollywood actresses following the #MeToo stories of sexual abuse and harassment that began in October when the New York Times broke a story on Harvey Weinstein’s alleged misdeeds.
Photo: Hollywood stars wore black to the Golden Globes in support of women who have been sexually harassed and abused. (Shailene Woodley/Twitter)
Senate spokesperson Katie Betta said Friday that the long-awaited report on the investigation of Sen. Jack Latvala is expected to the Senate president "some time next week." Pending a review by Senate lawyers, namely George Meros of the GrayRobinson law firm retained to advise the Senate, the report will then be made available to the public.
Betta said she could not give a timeline on when the report will be public. Betta said one issue the attorneys are reviewing is what to redact from the report on the names of people who came forward as witnesses in the investigation.
Senate legislative aide Rachel Perrin Rogers filed the formal complaint on Nov. 5 alleging that Latvala groped her, inappropriately touched her in a bar and subjected her to verbal sexual harassment over a period of four years. Her complaint launched the effort by the Senate to hire retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson to serve as the special master, review the allegations, subpoena witnesses to testify under oath and determine if there is probable cause to conclude that the allegations are truthful.
If probable cause is determined, the Senate Rule Committee will then conduct a hearing to determine if they are true. Under Senate rules, Latvala could be subject to an array of punishments from reprimand to removal from office.
The Senate hired a separate law firm, Jackson Lewis, to conduct a different investigation into allegations from five unnamed individuals who came forward to Politico also alleging sexual harassment by Latvala. That investigation is "still ongoing,'' Betta said. The final report for that probe will go to the Office of Legislative Services, Betta said.