January 12, 2016

Video(s): What to watch for in Florida's 2016 legislative session

From tax cuts and health care to gambling and guns, here are six key issues and themes to watch for as the 2016 Florida legislative session gets underway today.

Continue reading "Video(s): What to watch for in Florida's 2016 legislative session" »

January 11, 2016

Video: Previewing gun proposals for the 2016 legislative session

@ByKristenMClark

There's been buzz for several weeks about controversial proposals that Republican lawmakers are considering in the hopes of expanding gun owners' rights in Florida. Now that the 2016 legislative session is beginning this week, we'll find out just how far these proposals will go and if they truly have a chance to become law.

One of the proposals -- to allow concealed-weapons permit-holders to carry guns on public college and university campuses -- made headway last year but died when that session ended abruptly.

But the committee weeks last fall gave lawmakers plenty of time to revive that plan for 2016 and begin work on others -- including one that would allow concealed-weapons licensees to openly carry firearms in Florida and another that relaxes Florida's stand-your-ground law by shifting the burden of proof in court.

None of the bills is a walk in the park.

The stand-your-ground bill needs some political maneuvering in order to pass both chambers, and heading into the session, the open-carry and campus-carry bills are at a standstill, although they're likely to clear the House. Both await further hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Miami Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla has so far been mum on whether they'll be heard. If he doesn't take them up, the bills have minimal, if any, chance at being enacted.

The other factor to consider: 2016 is an election year, and politicians often don't want controversial votes on their record if they're in competitive races. With that reality in mind, legislators might be more hesitant to consider bills like these.

Video: Previewing education policy for the 2016 legislative session

@ByKristenMClark

Whether it's charter schools, standardized testing or even high school athletics, "school choice" continues to be a dominant theme in education policy coming out of Tallahassee.

Here are a few issues to watch for in the 2016 legislative session, which begins Tuesday:

 

December 15, 2015

Miami lawmaker calls for an end to 'wet foot, dry foot' policy

From the News Service of Florida:

A Miami Republican wants state lawmakers to urge Congress to repeal a Cold War-era law that gives Cubans preferential treatment when coming to the U.S.

The proposal (HM 959) by state Rep. Frank Artiles would be a non-binding "memorial" to Congress calling for repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which is often referred to as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. Unlike refugees from other nations, if Cubans step foot on U.S. soil --- by traversing the 90 miles of water between the two nations or through another route --- they are allowed to stay.

"This law provides Cuban migrants with an advantage that migrants of other nationalities do not have," said the proposal, filed Monday. The proposed memorial notes that the law was written at a time the Cuban government wasn't recognized by the U.S.

"The Cold War has ended, the United States has recognized the Cuban government, and both countries now maintain diplomatic relations, and travel between the United States and Cuba is now considerably less restricted," the proposal said.

In the spring, the Legislature approved a memorial that opposed President Barack Obama's decision to open diplomatic relations with Cuba and called for Congress to maintain an embargo with the nation.

November 27, 2015

Lawmakers seek to crack down on gas pump 'skimmers'

@ByKristenMClark

With the simple swipe of a credit card at a gas station pump, it’s become easier for identity thieves to steal customers’ information and rack up fraudulent charges in their names.

State Sen. Anitere Flores’ family knows this all too well; a close family member’s credit card information was stolen from a gas station “skimmer” two years ago in Miami, she said.

“Within hours, hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of charges — specifically gas station charges — were put on the card,” said Flores, R-Miami. “It was scary, but it was also a major inconvenience: canceling credit cards and changing account numbers. You shouldn’t have to go through all that just because you’re using the convenience of paying at the pump.”

With support from Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Flores and Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, want to crack down on the use of skimmers by requiring gas stations to have better security measures and by increasing the penalties for criminals convicted of credit card fraud.

Skimmers are devices that illegally capture and steal credit- and debit-card information. State inspectors in Putnam’s department have located and removed 161 skimmers statewide since March alone.

More here.

November 19, 2015

Guns-on-campus proposal heads to Florida House floor

Guns AP

@ByKristenMClark

A controversial plan, backed by the National Rifle Association, that would allow guns on college and university campuses statewide is ready for Florida's 120 House members to vote on when they begin their 2016 session in January.

The proposal (House Bill 4001) from Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, made swift progress through three House committees this fall and cleared its final hurdle on Thursday, despite passionate objections from the higher education community and campus law enforcement.

The House Judiciary Committee easily approved the bill by 13-5 vote. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee -- a co-sponsor of the bill -- joined Republicans in supporting it. The panel's five other Democrats were opposed.

"Time and time again, we’ve seen shootings in gun-free zones, and I don’t believe that should be policy in the state of Florida," Steube said of his bill.

But university and college presidents and administrators, campus police chiefs, faculty and other education groups vehemently oppose allowing guns on campus. They said again Thursday that guns don't have any place in an environment that should be dedicated to learning, and that allowing campus-carry could make emergency situations even more chaotic.

The Senate companion bill (SB 68) -- sponsored by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker -- also has gained favor this fall in two committees: criminal justice and higher education. It awaits a third and final hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it stalled last year.

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November 18, 2015

Open-carry gun bill narrowly passes second Florida House panel

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@ByKristenMClark

A plan endorsed by the National Rifle Association that would allow more than 1.4 million Floridians to openly carry firearms continues to garner support in the Republican-led Legislature, despite concerns from law enforcement groups and other critics about the absence of additional training or holstering requirements and other safeguards that they want included.

House Bill 163 -- sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- narrowly passed the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday by a 7-6 vote. Tampa Bay-area Republican Reps. Chris Latvala, of Clearwater, and Kathleen Peters, of South Pasadena, joined four Democrats in opposition.

Gaetz said the “urgency” in adopting the legislation is “to fully vindicate the Second Amendment and the rights that Floridians ought to enjoy.”

But Peters said the bill doesn't address concerns related to public safety and wouldn't expand any constitutional rights that Floridians don't already have. The proposal would let residents with concealed-weapons permits openly carry those weapons anywhere they’re legally allowed to carry concealed now.

"It doesn’t change who has the ability to bear arms," she said. "Our core responsibility is public safety, and are we truly allowing public safety when we allow someone to carry a gun when they’re walking down the street?"

Gaetz proposed several amendments to the bill -- which the committee approved -- in an effort to counter critics; the changes appeased some opponents, but not others. He said after the hearing that it's a "better bill" than before, but he admits there's more work to be done on it.

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November 17, 2015

Stiffer penalties for 'terroristic threats' approved by Florida House panel

@ByKristenMClark

People who make "terroristic threats" would face harsher penalties under a proposal that earned unanimous approval from the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Tuesday.

The plan from Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, would make it a third-degree felony for someone to threaten or cause terror and/or prompt the evacuation of a building, public place or public transportation facility.

A conviction would also result in the person having to pay the cost of the evacuation and any damages stemming from it.

While bomb threats are a felony, current law allows terroristic threats -- such as a threat of a school shooting -- to be prosecuted only as a misdemeanor under criminal mischief or disturbing-the-peace laws, Smith said.

"This bill recognizes the seriousness of these threats and provides appropriate criminal penalties for them - especially those that target our teachers, judges, law enforcement and others," Smith said.

The proposal is also supported by the Florida Police Benevolent Association and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

House Bill 257 now goes to the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

The Senate companion, sponsored by Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has been referred to three committees, but no hearings have been scheduled yet.

Democrats successfully maneuver to kill 'Stand Your Ground' changes in Florida House

Baxley

@ByKristenMClark

A plan to strengthen Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law during the 2016 legislative session died an early death in the state House on Tuesday, after a subcommittee rejected the legislation on a deadlocked vote.

House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, and Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, joined with the panel’s four Democrats to oppose a bill by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, that would have given defendants who claim self-defense more protection from prosecution.

House Bill 169 would have required prosecutors to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- during a procedural hearing before trial -- why a defendant's self-defense claim isn't valid.

In contrast, Florida courts, culminating in a Florida Supreme Court ruling in July, had previously ruled that the defendant had the burden of proving why they shouldn't be prosecuted because they acted in self-defense.

Trujillo, a former assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade County, said he supports the way "Stand Your Ground" operates now, and the burden should remain on the defendant who claims self-defense.

"If you’re alleging something, you have to prove it," Trujillo said.

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, was absent for the vote, resulting in the 6-6 tie.

The surprise result was preceded by two late-filed amendments from Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, which he said he proposed as "an insurance policy" with the ultimate intent to kill the bill in committee. Both amendments passed by a 6-5 vote; Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, was absent for those, along with Latvala.

Continue reading "Democrats successfully maneuver to kill 'Stand Your Ground' changes in Florida House" »

November 16, 2015

Proposed changes to 'Stand Your Ground' law get hearings this week

@ByKristenMClark

A proposal that would give defendants more protection under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" Law will go before two legislative committees this week.

Some Republican lawmakers want to strengthen the law in response to a 5-2 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court in July, which affirmed that the defendant bears the burden of proof in demonstrating that they acted in self-defense.

Some legislators believe the court erred in its finding and they want to make the law explicitly clear that it should actually be the prosecutor who should prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- before trial -- why a defendant's self-defense claim doesn't qualify for immunity protections.

House Bill 169, introduced by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, gets its first hearing before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The Senate version gets its second vetting before that chamber's Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Florida's 10-year-old "Stand Your Ground" Law allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives in certain circumstances. A defendant's stand-your-ground claim is vetted during a pretrial evidentiary hearing, when they can seek to dismiss the case by citing self-defense immunity.

Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente, writing for the majority in the July opinion, said requiring the defendant to prove their ability to qualify for such immunity is "principled, practical and supported by our precedent" for other motions of dismissal.

But Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island -- the Senate sponsor -- said last month that the court's ruling exhibited "classic overreach" that conservatives, such as him, find "objectionable."

Bradley said it is a "fundamental tenant" of the American judicial system that someone is innocent until proven guilty, and he said the circumstance should be no different for someone who asserts immunity from prosecution under the "Stand Your Ground" law. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee advanced the bill by a 4-1 vote during that Oct. 20 hearing.

Criminal defense attorneys, public defenders, the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups support the bill; while state prosecutors, victims rights advocates and the Florida League of Women Voters opposes it.

The legislation also would allow the defendant to recoup attorneys fees and other costs up to $200,000, if the court granted a defendant's motion to dismiss the case.

The proposed legislation would apply retroactively to pending cases, if enacted.