April 18, 2019

'The hemp industry is waiting': State hemp program bill readies for House floor


Without much conversation and a brief, unanimous vote, a House panel voted Thursday to send a bill that would create a state hemp program to the chamber floor. 

The bill, put forward by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, would authorize the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to administer a state hemp program and make the plant an agricultural option for farmers across the state.

Hemp, a form of the cannabis plant, contains only trace amounts of THC — the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high. In 2014, the federal government authorized a state department or university to conduct a hemp pilot program. In 2017, Florida created one. Under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was cleared to become an agricutlural crop under a state-authorized program, which the bill aims to create. 

A similar version of the bill in the Senate has also passed all of its committees.

The state will then have to submit the plan to the United States Department of Agriculture and apply for primary regulatory authority over the production of hemp. The plan has to include testing procedures, certification methods, inspection plans and corrective actions for farmers who may be in violation. 

At the House State Affairs committee Thursday morning, bill sponsor Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican, compared the burgeoning hemp industry to a tech boom. He said young people will become the next Steve Jobs, and that new hemp products will soon be as ubiquitous as the iPhone. 

"It will provide jobs not only in the industry, but for the young people today who need to learn a new career," he said.

According to the bill's staff analysis, at least 30 countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America currently permit farmers to grow hemp. In the U.S., hemp market is largely dependent on imports.

If passed, the state hemp program will set up rulemaking and a board of experts to help develop the system in the state. The idea is modeled closely after what Kentucky has done to revitalize farmland once used by the tobacco industry. Researchers have since said that hemp is proving successful at adapting to Florida’s growing conditions, which vary dramatically across the state. A staff analysis of the bill said Florida farmers will likely benefit economically by the opportunity to plant, process and sell hemp and hemp-based products.

"Very rarely do we have a bill that has such a broad influence on the people of Florida," Massullo said. "The hemp industry is waiting for someone to develop. The uses of hemp are myriad."

Right to grow veggies at home is headed to the House


A bill to ban regulations on vegetable gardens is headed to the House floor. 

HB 145, filed by Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff, R-DeLand, was approved at the House State Affairs Committee's last meeting Thursday. 

Fetterhoff's bill prohibits local governments from regulating of vegetable gardens on residential property, and voids any existing ordinances or regulations that tell people where they can and can't grow their own produce. The bill doesn't apply to general ordinances or regulations that are not specific to vegetable gardens, such as limits on water use during drought conditions, fertilizer use, or control of invasive species

Local governments, however, can still adopt a local ordinance or regulation that doesn’t specifically target vegetable gardens, like regulating water during drought conditions, limiting fertilizer use or controlling invasive species.

The Senate passed a similar bill during the 2018 session, but the clock ran out and a House version was never filed.

The vegetable garden proposal is rooted in a legal dispute about an ordinance in Miami Shores that banned the gardens from being planted in front yards. Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll, who ate from their vegetable garden for 17 years, sued the village. In November 2017, an appeals court upheld a ruling that the couple does not have a constitutional right to grow vegetables in their front yard. They appealed the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to grant review.

Ricketts and Carroll faced $50 in daily fines after the village amended its ordinance in 2013. They had to dig up their garden – which can’t grow in their backyard because of a lack of sun.

The bill only preempts local government rules, not rules or gardening restrictions set by homeowners associations or other groups.

The main opponent to both vegetable garden bills is the Florida League of Cities. The group’s legislative counsel, David Cruz, has argued that each city in Florida is unique, and much of the unique aesthetic is brought about through code enforcement. That’s why Coral Gables looks different from Perry, Florida, he said.

“There’s the ability at the local level to come up with solutions,” he said. “We’re not against vegetable gardens. Our members are not against vegetable gardens. But local solution could be crafted.”

Cruz said bills like this one preempt local laws, and gave the example of a 2013 Orlando ordinance that allows residents to use 60 percent of their front yard as a vegetable garden.

“This bill would void that ordinance,” he said. “It would undo the good work of a city to compromise on this issue.”

April 17, 2019

School districts, charters, sheriffs. Who decides if teachers can be armed?

PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 25: People visit Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 25, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The Florida Senate didn’t have a formal vote on the bill that would allow classroom teachers to be armed on Wednesday, but they did adopt a major amendment that could settle one of the biggest lingering questions of the debate: who gets to decide if teachers in a school can be armed?
Under current law, passed last year as part of the fallout from the shooting in Parkland that left 17 students and staff dead, both a school district and their county’s sheriff must agree to offer the “Guardian program” before teachers can carry guns on campus. The sheriff’s office is then charged with offering teachers and other personnel with the proper training and psychological screening. Some districts have opted to hire security staff whose only role is to be armed protection.
But under Wednesday’s amendment to the bill, sheriff’s offices would be required to offer that training if school districts requests it, though that sheriff may contract with another sheriff to provide it instead. Additionally, if a district decides not to participate in the program but a charter school disagrees, they can ask their county’s sheriff to offer the training to their staff anyway.
“There have been discussions with the House to try to get these bills lined up," said Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. “It’s a genuine issue regarding who is making the decisions and who is calling the shots and we didn’t want to have one school speaking for the whole district.”
But there’s an additional curveball: if a charter school wishes to arm their staff and the sheriff refuses, they can also ask a sheriff outside their county to provide the training instead.
“If the (Broward County) school board does not want it, and they’ve been adamant about that, so if a charter school decides they do want it it’s going to be a problem,” Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Lauderhill, said.
The new version of the bill clarifies that the district and charter schools have a joint responsibility to ensure all charter schools have armed security, which is required by law on every campus.
The question was the subject of a lawsuit in Palm Beach County, where an administrative law judge ruled that the school board there must assign school security to charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that are operated by private entities.
Final votes on the school safety bills, Senate Bill 7030 and House Bill 7093, are expected in both chambers in the coming days.

Senators look to require all online retailer collect Florida sales tax

The retail giant Amazon was one of the first online companies to start collecting sales tax in Florida five years ago.
Now, Florida lawmakers want Amazon’s competitors to catch up.
A potential Senate tax package (Senate Bill 1112) would require nearly all online retailers start collecting Florida sales taxes, netting the state roughly $700 million in revenue it currently doesn’t collect.
But much of the money would be given away by other tax breaks.
Currently, Floridians who buy products from sites like Wayfair, Etsy and Amazon’s third-party sellers usually don’t pay Florida’s 6 percent sales tax. Instead, Floridians are supposed to pay the sales tax directly to the state, which they usually don’t do.
“We’re making our average, everyday citizens guilty of not paying their taxes,” Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who is sponsoring the bill, said Tuesday, before it passed its second committee.
Requiring nearly all online retailers collect the tax would fix the problem. But Gruters, who is also chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, is careful not to call it a tax increase.
“Some people say this is a tax increase,” he told fellow senators on Tuesday. “It’s not. It’s a tax that’s currently owed.”
The idea is in response to a Supreme Court ruling last year that threw out the idea that a company had to have a physical presence in a state before the state could require it to collect sales taxes.
It would net an estimated $700 million for the state, according to Gruters. Online companies that sell at least 200 items or $100,000 worth of items in Florida would have to collect the tax.
But under Gruters’ bill, much of the money would be given away through a slew of tax cuts, including:
  • Cutting the tax on rent for commercial properties from 5.7 percent to 3.5 percent,
  • eliminating the ad valorem tax on heavy equipment rented by a dealer,
  • creating a 14-day sales tax holiday for disaster preparedness supplies, and
  • providing a tax cut to insurers that cover remote visits with doctors, known as “telehealth."
Just how much of the $700 million would make it into state and local coffers is unclear, though. The bill still has another committee stop to go before making it to the Senate floor.
“This is probably one of the most important bills of this session,” Gruters said. “I hope we can be the voice of reason and pass this bill.”

April 16, 2019

Amy Klobuchar talks climate change, hurricanes and winning Florida in Tallahassee

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks with reporters in Tallahassee about her 2020 presidential campaign. SGROSS@MIAMIHERALD.COM

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar talked climate change, hurricanes and what it will take to win Florida with Democratic lawmakers in Tallahassee on Tuesday in her first visit to gather support in the sunshine state for her 2020 presidential campaign

"A lot of the issues I'm focused on are issues that matter a lot in Florida," the Minnesota Democrat said after a closed meeting with the House Democratic Caucus.

Klobuchar said she was concerned with the effects of climate change, and pointed out that eight of 10 of the metropolitan areas destined to have the most climate change-induced flooding are in Florida.

"My idea here is to get an international climate change agreement on day one and to bring back the clean power rules and to do more when it comes to infrastructure ... certainly, you have needs here," she said. 

She also answered questions regarding funding for those who were affected by Hurricane Michael in October. Klobuchar voted down on a disaster relief bill that would have awarded tens of millions of dollars to victims still waiting on funding. The bill is stalling as the Senate fights over substantial new assistance for Puerto Rico — assistance Democrats are demanding.

She is a bigger fan of the House bill, she said, and that she hopes the chambers will "work that out." 

"There is no reason we can't work this out, given that the House bill had the kind of funding we'd like to see," she said. "They don't seem to want to help Puerto Rico and there's no reason we can't do all of this together. We have to get this done and we will. This is a matter of negotiations. "

Klobuchar talked about other hot topics in Florida, and commended Florida on the way student activists in Parkland have engaged more young people politically, and how voters approved Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to former felons. She said she'd never seen students from high schools in Minnesota ask such engaging questions, and that people back home have taken a new interest in restoring felon's rights.

Klobuchar added that she feels confident about winning Florida in the primaries in 2020 "despite the fact that I'm coming from a state that has a lot of snow." She said walking around Florida today she sees "a lot of people feeling left behind," and that they want a candidate who will address affordable housing and expanded access to better healthcare. 

"We have to be governing from opportunity, not chaos," she said. "I don't see the other presidential candidate, which will likely be Donald Trump, addressing climate change." 

School referendum funding bill heads to Florida House floor with some changes

[Miami Herald file photo]
The Florida House bill that would require school districts that have had successful voter referendums to share their additional funding with charter schools passed its final committee in the House on Tuesday, with a few significant changes. Its next stop is the House floor.
Under this bill, House Bill 7123, districts whose voters approved a higher property tax rate for school funding would need to share that money with charter schools starting in the next budget year. Charter schools are paid for with public money and run by private entities.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, added an amendment on Tuesday in the House Appropriations committee which would require charter schools that receive a slice of these funds to use them for the intended purpose of the referendums. In Miami-Dade for example, voters supported a measure in November to raise their property taxes with the express purpose of funding teacher salaries and increased school security.
The amendment also removed the financial penalty for school districts should they fail to properly share the funds with districts.
“Some of the members had ... concerns about enacting or implementing penalties,” Avila said. “This is a package that obviously still has a long way to go in terms of the negotiations with the Senate, so it’s still a work in progress.”
In the bill’s first committee, House Ways and Means, Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani from Orlando proposed an amendment that would have had a similar effect. At the time, her change was voted down but Avila pledged to take it under further consideration, which he said contributed to Tuesday’s amendment.
This bill would affect Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Broward and about a dozen other districts whose voters have approved property tax increases in the past. The Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando school districts have won voter approval for local sales tax increases, which would not be affected by this change.
The bill’s origins likely rest with an ongoing dispute in Miami over their approved property tax hike, as district officials have said they would not share the majority of the referendum money — the portion for teacher salaries — with charters. Although Avila has often pointed to his home county of Miami-Dade as a chief example of this problem, he’s emphasized the need for “clarity” statewide on this issue, especially to deal with ongoing lawsuits.
But some of the Democrats in Tuesday’s committee said they weren’t buying it, and were frustrated that Miami-Dade’s squabble could now have statewide implications.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, pointed to Palm Beach County, where voters approved a property tax hike after the school board stated that the money would not be shared with charter schools. That decision is now the subject of a lawsuit.
“We’re coming in and usurping will of the voters ... but they approved it overwhelmingly on that condition," he said. "How can we be doing this?”
Although the piece related to school referendum funding has seen the most contention, it’s part of a larger tax package, which would also significantly reduce the state’s commercial lease tax and set dates for this year’s sales-tax-free shopping days for back-to-school season and hurricane preparedness.
In past years, it’s been typical for the House to propose their tax package first, which the Senate can incorporate into their version. It’s unclear whether the Senate will accept the piece related to charter school funding.

April 15, 2019

Ron DeSantis seeks free speech resolution allowing controversial speakers at Florida universities

DeSantis FSU
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at Dodd Hall on Florida State University's campus on April 15, 2019. He said Florida's colleges and universities should adopt a specific free speech policy that allows for more "intellectual diversity." Emily L. Mahoney |Times/Herald
Gov. Ron DeSantis said all of Florida’s colleges and universities should adopt a resolution similar to the “Chicago statement,” a statement on campus free speech that declares that all viewpoints should be allowed to be discussed on college campuses, even if they are ones students may “loathe” or find “deeply offensive.”
“We are here today to affirm our commitment to ensuring that all Florida’s public universities and colleges and protect student speech and the open exchange of ideas on our campuses,” DeSantis said during a Monday news conference at Florida State University, flanked by the university’s president, John Thrasher, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran and Marshall Criser, chancellor of the state’s university system.
Scores of colleges and universities across the country have already adopted a version of this resolution, including Eckerd College, a liberal arts school in St. Petersburg. According to the governor’s office, all the state’s other colleges and universities are plan to adopt the Chicago statement.
Notably, DeSantis addressed the topic of controversial speakers — an issue with which Florida is deeply familiar, after white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida in October 2017 and had to cut his speech short after students in the audience drowned him out with chants like “Black Lives Matter.”
“At an academic institution where you have a speaker expressing ideas, there’s no room for a heckler’s veto where you simply shout down or scream down a speaker so that they cannot articulate views,” DeSantis said, later adding that in Spencer’s case, the “best response” by students would have been “an empty auditorium.”
He added that he’s noticed “a trend” nationwide where universities have dis-invited certain speakers that espouse controversial opinions, such as conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, who has said that the majority of Muslims have been “radicalized” and tweeted “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.”
“I think that’s a sign of weakness on behalf of school administrators and I think that demonstrates a lack of commitment to free exchange of ideas," DeSantis said. "There can’t be a safe space in the business world.”
Experts in campus free speech emphasized that the Chicago statement doesn’t have teeth, though it can be a positive first step in affirming institution’s commitment to free speech regardless of the speech’s content.
“It’s unequivocally a positive step in the right direction for a public institution to affirm this is what they think about these issues,” said Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has done policy and legal work on behalf of students whose speech rights were infringed upon on campus.
“But they (universities) also need to do the hard work of comparing their policies to the principles reflected in the statement.”
But Jonathan Friedman, the campus free speech project director for PEN America, a national group of writers and human rights advocates which has published a report on campus free speech, says that universities should not feel pressure to remain neutral on all issues in an effort to have open speech.
“Having a conversation about free speech alone ... without discussing the tensions that exist can inflame other issues like racism and hateful speech on campus,” Friedman said. “If there’s someone on campus promoting hate … we would want the university to be able to say, ‘We don’t agree with this person and here are all the reasons why.’”
The announcement came at a time when bills are moving through the Florida Legislature (Senate Bill 1296 and House Bill 839) that would require each of the state’s public universities, to conduct an annual “assessment” looking at “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at that institution.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, has pointed to a University of Colorado survey as the inspiration for the proposal, which polled students and faculty on whether they felt the school promoted an environment respectful of all people of all identities and opinions. As part of that survey, students and faculty were also asked to anonymously identify their race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation and political party.
And just last month, President Donald Trump issued a broad executive order on the topic of university free speech, asking federal agencies to make sure that colleges or universities that receive federal grants “promote free inquiry." If not, those grants could be at risk.
When signing the order, Trump said “professors and power structures” are keeping students from “challenging rigid far-left ideology.”
DeSantis said on Monday that he agrees that university faculty tend to lean leftward, though he said that should not matter.
“I’ve had liberal professors over the years who were very fair about putting forward the alternative viewpoints," he said.
Both Cohn and Friedman said it’s very important that elected leaders don’t politicize discussions surrounding the First Amendment.
“Whats really important is that we avoid the hypocrisy emanating around the Trump administration where Trump himself ... calls for journalists, for people who disagree with him to be punished,” Friedman said. “It’s really important that universities help students and others to start to see free expression as allied to causes of diversity and inclusion rather than in tension with them.”

Are the 'sanctuary city' bills dead in the FL Legislature?

Undocumented immigrants protest outside of Senator Marco Rubio's office in Doral on Nov. 20, 2015 C.M. GUERRERO

After bills aimed at banning so-called "sanctuary cities" were fast-tracked through the Legislature this year, progress grinded to a halt and they weren't heard for a week.

But the contentious bills will be heard in the House Judiciary and Senate Rules committees Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon respectively. These meetings are the last stops the bills need before heading to the chamber floor.

The bills create rules relating to federal immigration enforcement by prohibiting “sanctuary” policies and requiring state and local law enforcement to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The bill also would give whistleblower status to officers who report citizenship violations by undocumented immigrants detained in local jails on unrelated charges.

Under the bills, local law enforcement would be required to honor federal law enforcement’s request for an “immigration detainer,” meaning a request that another law enforcement agency detains a person based on probable cause to believe that the person is a “removable alien” under federal immigration law. The bill would essentially make the “request” a requirement.
Since they were filed, the proposals sparked a heated debate on who should be making immigration policy. Groups opposing the bills have held protests and rallies both at the Capitol and at district offices across the state, and say the bill is a "family separation policy." They rejoiced when the bills weren't put on any agendas last week. 
The House and Senate have not yet worked out a technical disagreement related to whether policy bills should be allowed to be tied to the budget, which has slowed some policy bills, including a contentious school safety bill that would allow classroom teachers to be armed on campus. 
In the House, Speaker José Oliva said there's still time to hear the bill, nodding to what he said would be a hectic schedule in the last three weeks.

"There's a lot of things that I think will still come through here that might appear stalled," Oliva told reporters last Thursday, in response to a question about the sanctuary cities proposal. "There are a lot of bills, next week's going to be a busy week, and then two weeks after that we're going to be in this chamber almost all day. There's still a lot of things to get done."

"There's time for that," he said of sanctuary cities, though he said he doubted the House would advance that proposal by this week.

The topic of sanctuary cities became national news Thursday night, when the Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump is giving "strong considerations" to releasing immigrant detainees in "sanctuary cities."

Gov. Ron DeSantis, an ally of the president, campaigned aggressively against sanctuary cities in his state of the state address. He told the crowd that Florida “will not be a sanctuary state" and that he “won’t tolerate sanctuary cities that actively frustrate law enforcement.”

April 11, 2019

House advances bill that would require school districts to share referendum money with charters

[Miami Herald file photo]
The Ways and Means Committee in the Florida House voted to approve a major tax package on Thursday which would require school districts to share additional revenue with charter schools that is the result of local referendums to raise property taxes.
The measure, House Bill 7123, would affect Miami-Dade, Broward, Pinellas, and about a dozen other districts around the state which have had these types of voter-approved raises. Those districts would be required, starting in the upcoming budget year, to spread that wealth to charter schools, which are financed by taxpayers but managed by private entities.
The chair of the committee is Rep. Bryan Avila, a Republican from the Miami area, where the school district is currently undergoing negotiations over a successful November ballot measure that was intended to give teachers a raise.
But school officials in Miami-Dade have said that they would not be granting that extra money for teacher salaries to charters, though they would consider sharing a portion for school security measures.
“We did not hear one piece of testimony whatsoever from anybody here from somebody from a school board. And I think that’s telling," said Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill during Thursday’s meeting. “It’s because they know, deep down, that what they attempted to do with cutting out these charter schools was absolutely wrong, unethical, immoral and trying to skirt the law."
Under this bill, if districts do not share their property tax referendum money with charter schools, the state may withhold other monies.
The tax bill passed without any amendments, despite several from Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, which would have changed the portion referring to charter schools. Her suggested changes would have either removed that section completely, or required charter schools to use the extra funds for the purpose outlined in the referendums, or at least stated that districts will not held responsible for misuse of referendum funds by charter schools.
Republicans on the committee said her accountability suggestions were unnecessary and would be addressed by either the local district or the existing law.
“Obviously the school districts, before they have a referendum, should look to statute and model their referendums after the statute and not the other way around,” Avila said. “It’s up to us to provide that clarity.”
But Eskamani said this piece was “ideologically driven.”
The bill “doesn’t give any type of reflection on the fact that you have some charter schools that have made poor decisions,” she said. “If you’re going to make an accusation of bad actors on one side of the debate know that there are bad actors on all sides and that’s a worthy area to address. But that’s not what this debate was focused on.”
The bill had not yet been assigned to any other committee by Thursday afternoon.

April 10, 2019

Parents of kids shot at Parkland school file more than 20 negligence lawsuits


Via @DavidJNeal and @JayHWeaver

Parents of students killed and injured in the 2018 mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have filed more than 20 lawsuits, alleging negligence by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the Broward County School Board and Henderson Behavorial Health and “willful and wanton negligence” against former BSO school resource officer Scot Peterson and campus monitor Andrew Medina.

A phalanx of lawyers representing the victims’ families said Wednesday that they were forced to sue after BSO and the School Board reneged on their initial commitment to help resolve financial claims for their losses. The teams of attorneys and families decided to go to court after learning that the School Board hired lobbyists in Tallahassee to thwart their efforts to collect damages in a claims bill before the Florida Legislature.

Lawyers would not disclose the exact amount sought by the parents.

A Broward County Public Schools spokesperson said BCPS doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits.

Peterson’s attorney, Joseph DiRuzzo, said, “We are confident that any lawsuit related to the Parkland shooting lacks merit; we will vigorously contest the factual and legal assertions made therein.”

Attorney Todd Michaels, who is representing the family of deceased teacher Scott Beigel, said the BSO and School Board initially said they wanted “to help bring justice.”

“What we’ve learned in the past 14 months is that they have no intent to help,” Michaels said at a news conference at the Fort Lauderdale law firm of Kelley/Uustal. “They hired a law firm to lobby behind the scenes against the interests of the victims.”

BCPS Chief Public Information Officer Kathy Koch disagreed with that. While having no comment the substance of n the lawsuit, Koch said BCPS brought in lobbying law firm GrayRobinson to help with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Victims’ Compensation Fund. She claims neither BCPS or GrayRobinson worked against the fund.

Read the rest here.

Tom Steyer: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is a ‘fake environmentalist'

At a glance, you could argue that Florida has been a money pit for billionaire Tom Steyer’s political network.

The Democratic hedge-fund manager and climate activist’s NextGen America has spent up to $30 million in Florida over the past five years, with limited results. The left-leaning organization helped Democrats take the U.S. House of Representatives last fall by flipping two crucial congressional seats in Miami, but Florida’s formerly climate-denying governor still became a U.S. senator and voters still elected as his successor a prominent surrogate of President Donald Trump, whom Steyer wants badly to impeach.

SteyerSteyer acknowledges that the results in those two high-profile races were a letdown, calling losses by former Sen. Bill Nelson and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum “the two most disappointing races in the United States.” But he doesn’t view 2018 as a wash, and still sees Florida as the key to 2020.

In fact, after breaking down the results of the Florida midterms, Steyer says he’s as confident as ever that his get-out-the-vote operation is working in the nation’s largest swing state. A newly released postmortem by NextGen’s state youth director found that participation spiked last year by voters under the age of 40. And the 52,000 voters registered by NextGen in a statewide mail and digital campaign and college campus initiative cast ballots at an even greater clip.

With the Florida Democratic Party and Gillum already planning to spend millions on a massive voter registration effort, Steyer says he’s also prepared to keep working. He’s not entirely sure what that will look like so far out from Election Day, but expects to fight efforts by Florida lawmakers to curb voting rights, to advocate for expanded on-campus voting sites and to organize youth town halls for some of the Democratic Party’s most important politicians in the state.

“I don’t think you can look at a presidential map that the Republicans win without Florida,” Steyer, who was in Miami Tuesday on business, said during an interview at the JW Marriott Miami on Brickell Avenue.

Read the rest here.

Chirino runs for Florida Senate


Angie Chirino, the eldest daughter of Cuban pop singer Willy Chirino, is getting back on the ballot

After losing the August Republican primary to succeed Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chirino announced Tuesday that she's running in 2020 for the Florida Senate seat held by term-limited Sen. Anitere Flores. Chirino, 49, says she'll "focus her campaign on child safety and welfare," and on "improving Florida’s school system."

"It’s vital that we do everything possible to give the next generation of South Floridians the best start in life, especially those from challenging backgrounds,” Chirino said in a statement. "For too long, South Florida families have been forced to spend too much of their valuable time stuck in traffic and too much of their hard-earned money on tolls. I plan to be a tireless advocate for effectively addressing this issue as well as for state policies that protect our seniors and the beautiful environment we all enjoy."

Chirino's entry into the race follows last week's campaign roll-out by Pinecrest Councilwoman Anna Hochkammer, the first Democrat to file to run for a district that represents the Florida Keys and parts of south and west Dade. Republican Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez still has an open campaign account that she launched long before she was asked to be Ron DeSantis' running mate, but says she is shutting down her account.

Chirino was an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump during her congressional campaign. She is also, in her own right, a Latin Grammy-winning musician. She placed in the August primary in Florida's 27th congressional district after raising $57,000.

Senate committee approves Canadian drug importation, certificate of need changes

Despite some early policy roadbumps, the Senate’s health care budget panel is waving through more healthcare priority bills backed by the Florida House, chief among them a plan endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to allow importing drugs from Canada.
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services voted unanimously Tuesday evening to advance several bills, including CS/SB 1712, a more limited version of a proposed repeal of the state's certificate-of-need system which oversees how healthcare facilities can build or expand services. The panel also — after some debate — unanimously voted to advance the prescription drug importation proposal, CS/SB 1528, that would allow prescription drugs to be imported from America’s northern neighbor in an effort to provide a cheaper alternative for Floridians.
Advocates, including the governor, have said the plan would curb ballooning prescription drug costs, though opponents — including a phalanx of pharmaceutical industry interests that have lobbied publicly against the bill — have said the importation idea could enable more counterfeit and dangerous drugs. They have also pointed to indications that the federal government, which has not yet authorized any state-level importation program since the option became available in 2003, remains hesitant about allowing such a program. DeSantis had claimed that political ally President Donald Trump is amenable to the idea.
The Senate version approved Tuesday would enable the state to ask the federal government for permission to create a program for importing drugs from Canada, under a 2003 federal law that gives them the authority to approve or deny such a move. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, would also require the Legislature to authorize the program again in the event it is greenlighted, a process that could take a few years.
The Senate bill was also amended to remove a provision that would require Canadian exporters to sell drugs at prices that would ensure the state saved money. Bean, who said the amendment was crafted with Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said there were concerns the provision could be construed as an unneeded mandate and that any application to federal authorities for approving the program would need to demonstrate cost savings anyway.
But Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who eventually voted for the bill, expressed reservations about the removal of the requirement, saying she was concerned that “middlemen” might be able to siphon away savings from patients.
The bill has one more stop before it can be heard by the full Senate, where it may face more opposition — Senate President Bill Galvano has said he has some concerns about key differences that still exist in the House’s proposal. Among them is how the importation program would be structured: though the Senate plan outlines one general program for drugs from Canada, the House version outlines a first pathway specifically for state-bought drugs from Canada alongside a second route that would permit international drugs generally to be imported by private entities beyond the state. 
The House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, is expected to be considered on the floor Wednesday.
DeSantis has in recent days reiterated his support for the bill: He traveled to Sun City Center on Monday to whip up support with Bean, Leek and his newly appointed leader of the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration Mary Mayhew, calling on Floridians to contact lawmakers and urge them to support the advancing legislation.

April 09, 2019

Proposal to expand needle exchange programs statewide poised for House floor

The Florida House is set to take up allowing needle exchanges beyond Miami-Dade, after the House Health and Human Services committee voted Tuesday to advance a bill that would let other counties create their own programs with the approval of their county commissions.
CS/HB 171 would expand a state law that created a pilot needle exchange program in Miami-Dade in 2016 — since that pilot was established, injection drug users have been able to trade dirty needles for clean ones at no charge and get connected to wound care and drug treatment. Expanding the program has been proposed every year since, though those efforts have not yet been successful. This year’s bill, sponsored by Reps. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park and Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, cleared its final House stop unanimously and could be heard on the House floor as early as next week.
“This is a big win for Florida,” Jones said after the vote.
As the House prepares to again take up the proposed statewide expansion, it will need to resolve some differences with the bill’s Senate companion, CS/SB 366, which the Senate approved unanimously a week ago.
The House version prohibits county funds from being used to operate such programs, though the Senate version allows local public dollars to be used. The House version is also stricter about enforcing a requirement that dirty needles be exchanged on a one-to-one basis for clean ones, though the Senate allows counties to waive that requirement under extenuating circumstances.
Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who visited the Miami-Dade program’s Overtown clinic late last year, told reporters last week that he still had some reservations about the program but that he had been impressed by its results. He did insist that he would only support the legislation if it limited funding for the programs to private dollars, citing his fear that if public money was allocated, “before you know it, it's a seven-foot fully glass building and the project costs $20 million."
Last year’s push to expand the program statewide had run into opposition from the Florida Sheriffs Association, which had objected to expanding programs without county commissions’ approval. This year’s bill, said Hansel Tookes, the University of Miami doctor who has helped lead the pilot, was crafted with some of those compromises in mind.
He acknowledged the prohibition on local dollars in the House bill meant “it’s going to be difficult for programs in rural areas to set up.” 
But Tookes added that in urban counties like Broward and Palm Beach where local commissions have already indicated they are supportive of such a program, allowing needle exchanges could save thousands of lives. “I am more optimistic than I have ever been,” he said.
Matt Zweil, an advocate who for years has sought to open a similar exchange program in Tampa Bay, said Tuesday he could work with the public funding restriction and that he supported the one-to-one requirement on exchanging dirty needles in the House version of the bill: “I am prepared to get out there and do the work and pay for it myself, and then come back to them a couple years down the line and demonstrate the value of that work.”
If the House does pass the bill, it will need to be sent back to the Senate for both chambers to agree on what the legislation should look like. But Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, who sponsored the proposal in the Senate, said he is optimistic the House and Senate will find a way to agree on the legislation before session ends May 3. 
“I’m open to talking to them about it,” he said. “I want to pass it. They want to pass it. I hope we’ll find a landing place.”

Bill to cap strong smokable pot heads to House floor


Despite jeers, boos and shouts of "willful ignorance" from opponents in the crowd, a bill aimed at limiting THC — the naturally occurring element in marijuana that produces a high — is headed to the House floor.

The House Appropriations committee gave the green light to a bill Tuesday that would put a cap on the amount of THC in marijuana flowers at 10 percent, citing research indicating that high-potency marijuana is associated with earlier onset of psychosis and the development of schizophrenia in marijuana users.

Current law places a limit on the amount of THC in edible products only, which may only contain 10 mg of THC per serving and 200 mg in total. The levels are much higher than what most patients would normally consume, according to industry experts.

Despite heated criticism by opponents that the bill is trying to curb the Legislature’s recent repeal of a ban on smoking medical marijuana, committee chair Rep. Ray Rodrigues said the bill is necessary because of the research around harmful effects of high-THC marijuana.

“As a policymaker, our goal is to do no harm and make sure the public policy we are adopting is good for the state of Florida,” the Estero Republican said. “ High THC being smoked is harmful … we will focus on the areas we see harm.”

The bill also prohibits doctors from certifying patients under 18 for marijuana for full-strength marijuana, gives free medical-marijuana identification cards for veterans and provides $350,000 to the Department of Health to implement the bill.

To the disappointment of some veterans and former opioid users who showed up to the committee meeting, an amendment that would define an opioid addiction as a qualifying condition did not pass.

“For many patients, medical cannabis has become an exit drug for their addiction to opiates,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, who put forth the amendment. “They have begun taking medical cannabis and it has helped them wean themselves off a more powerful medicine that has the ability to kill them.”

The right to smoke medical marijuana was backed by the Florida Legislature and quietly signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month The bill also establishes a research consortium, allows products like bongs and rolling papers to be purchased and requires a second opinion from a board-certified pediatrician for non-terminal patients under age 18.

Opponents to the bill take issue with the limited dosage, and say it defies the law that was passed last month, will force prices up and will drive patients to the black market to get higher-THC marijuana. 

Smith said for $60 a bag, people will turn to the black market where their marijuana could be unsafe or laced with dangerous chemicals.

"Who is best suited and positioned to decide what the THC content is going to be most effective? It’s not us," he said. "It should be the doctor."

A veteran and cancer survivor named "Morgan" said for his condition, low THC cannabis is "not worth smoking."

“This 10 percent cap is nonsense ... No cap should be allowed,” Morgan said. “I need a high THC dose. Being a cancer survivor, having no thyroid … I need high doses of THC to get in my blood system to make sure I’m medicated.”

Josephine Cannella-Krehl, a clinical social worker and marijuana advocate, asked that committee members consider Cathy Jordan, the ALS patient who has become the face of the movement to lift a ban on smokable medical marijuana. Jordan smokes marijuana every day to treat her illness, which has kept her living decades beyond her initial life expectancy. Her cannabis strain tests well above 10 percent THC, Krehl said. 

"This bill is a death sentence for Cathy Jordan and patients just like her," she said. 

Former Pinecrest mayor running for Miami-Dade commission


Cindy Lerner, a former mayor of Pinecrest, is running for the District 7 seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission that's being vacated by Xavier Suarez in 2020.

Lerner, a lawyer, served as mayor of Pinecrest between 2008 and 2016. The longtime Democrat said she's running to make the county finally grapple with the challenges of sea-level rise, traffic, drinking water and "failing infrastructure." 

"For too long, leaders have danced around pressing issues," Lerner said in a statement."I am running...because we can no longer afford hollow promises that simply waste taxpayer dollars and provide little results."

Lerner was an advocate for Pinecrest's recent failed referendum to use property taxes to borrow money and fund bonds that would let village properties connect to the county's water and sewer systems

District 7 straddles parts of Miami, Pinecrest, South Miami and Coral Gables already has a candidate: former school board member and 2016 mayoral challenger Raquel Regalado, a Republican. Regalado has raised $19,000 for her campaign in one month, including checks from auto magnate Norman Braman (who was her top backer in 2016), county vendor Transportation America, and lobbyists Jorge Luis Lopez and Eric Zichella. Commission elections are non-partisan, but the 2018 cycle saw both parties back their affiliated candidates. 

The big question is whether the man who defeated Regalado three years ago, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, will run for the seat when he leaves office in 2020. Gimenez, a Republican also in a non-partisan post, said recently he is going to run for something, and will announce his plans this summer. The most talked about options for the former county commissioner and former Miami city manager are his old District 7 seat, Miami mayor and congress. 

County term-limit rules restrict commissioners and mayors to two consecutive terms, and 2020 is poised to have open elections for mayor and six commission seats. Of the two incumbents up for election in 2020, Eileen Higgins has filed for reelection. Joe Martinez has not. 


Newly announced 2020 candidate Eric Swalwell launches campaign with Parkland event


In the first event of his presidential campaign, California Congressman Eric Swalwell is headed Tuesday to Broward County, where the newly announced 2020 candidate plans to highlight his gun-focused platform with an event just 13 miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Swalwell, who declared his candidacy on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” Monday evening, explained in a statement that he’s “making sure gun violence is front and center in our national policy debate.” He said he wants to hear from families harmed by gun violence during his 6 p.m. town hall at the BB&T Center in Sunrise (a second location after a Coral Springa La Quinta proved too small).

“I see a country in quicksand, unable to solve problems and threats from abroad, unable to make life better here at home,” Swalwell, a Democrat, told Colbert. “I talk to kids who sit in their classroom afraid that they’ll be the next victim of gun violence, and they see Washington doing nothing about it after the moments of silence and they see lawmakers who love their guns more than they love their kids. And none of that is going to change until we get a leader who’s going to go big on the issues we take on, be bold in the solutions we offer and do good in the way that we govern. I’m ready to solve these problems.”

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Amendment 4 leader, Tampa lobbyist receive “Floridian of the Year” awards from UF Center

Desmond Meade is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
The leader of the group that got Amendment 4 on the ballot and a Tampa lobbyist were named “Floridian of the Year” and “Young Floridian of the Year,” respectively, by the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service. The recognition is an annual award.
Desmond Meade is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group that was one of the creators of the amendment to the Florida constitution that ended permanent disenfranchisement of people convicted of felonies.
That amendment, which passed in November, is mired in controversy as the Florida Legislature has proposed bills that would require ex-felons to pay all their restitution before being eligible to
“What we’ve seen in Amendment 4 was people being willing to put aside partisan differences and racial differences and to come together to move something that was major,” Meade said, adding
that he was “honored” by the award.
The recognition itself is “in the spirit of how Amendment 4 was passed and that’s the spirit I’m trying to relay to our Florida Legislature ... it’s about people over politics,” he said.
Prior to his political activism, Meade overcame homelessness to graduate from Florida International University’s college of law, according to the Center.
The “Young Floridian of the Year” is James Chan, the Florida director and a lobbyist for the the State Innovation Exchange, a group that helps advance progressive issues in state legislatures.
Chan has devoted much of his career to increasing the civic engagement of communities of color and he also leads the Tampa Bay chapter of the New Leaders Council, a national organization
geared toward training young progressive leaders, according to the Center.
“As a University of Florida alum and a Graham Center alum it means a lot that Sen. Graham and the awards committee thought I was good enough to be picked,” he said.

April 08, 2019

Requiring parental consent for abortions begins moving in the Florida Senate

A bill that would require minors to have parental consent for abortions is now moving through the Florida Senate, after the Senate Health Policy committee voted Monday to advance the bill. The 5-4 vote was largely along party lines.
SB 1774, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would add new requirements for minors to have abortions, requiring them to obtain either parental consent or a judicial waiver before the procedure can be done.
In Florida, if a minor is seeking an abortion, state law currently requires that a parent or guardian be notified, with exceptions in cases such as medical emergencies. The law also allows minors to obtain a judicial waiver from the notification requirement under certain circumstances, such as if they are already parents or have other extenuating circumstances.
The abortion measure has been gaining renewed attention against the backdrop of a changed state Supreme Court that some advocates on both sides have suggested might change past judicial precedent in the state of Florida, though other more restrictive bills that would shorten the period during which abortions can be performed have stalled in each chamber.
Stargel said current law means all a minor needs to do is "walk into the family and say, ‘I have made this decision and I am notifying you,’ then they are on their way.” She cast the legislation as a way to strengthen families by “allowing the family to have a conversation.”
But opponents have cast the bill as a blow to existing access to abortions, and pointed to a similar law requiring parental consent that was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 1989, citing a broad state constitutional right to privacy that the courts have asserted applies to a woman’s pregnancy. A law pertaining to parental notification was also struck down in 2003, though voters the following year approved a constitutional amendment to create a new notification law.
Dozens of pro-choice and pro-life advocates testified in committee, though the chair of the committee Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, limited testimony, citing time restrictions, to a minute each.
Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, who voted against the bill, called it “blatantly unconstitutional” and suggested that she expected the bill, if passed, to be re-litigated in the courts.
Berman also asked Stargel if the bill had been explicitly raised to bring the issue before the state Supreme Court, which has three new justices on the bench appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Though other lawmakers supporting abortion restrictions this year have suggested the new court could play a role, Stargel rejected the suggestion.
The bill mirrors an already-advancing House proposal that is poised to reach the House floor later this week, though it differs in some respects from its Senate companion. Among them is how the bill is written: Although the House measure rewrites existing law, the Senate version does not, which some suggested might require minors to apply twice for judicial waivers – one to exempt them from the existing notification requirement and one from the proposed consent requirement.
The Senate version is also missing a clause present in the House version that would increase the existing penalty for violating the state’s “born alive” law: The House’s bill would make not caring for an infant born alive during an abortion procedure punishable as a third-degree felony rather than a first-degree misdemeanor.
Stargel said after the hearing that she is open to amending the proposal to clarify the potential double waiver issue and open to the increased "born alive" penalty as well.
The House version of the bill — House Bill 1335, sponsored by Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach — is scheduled for its final committee hearing Tuesday afternoon. In the Senate, it must be heard twice more before it can be considered by the full chamber.

'It’s going to kill ballot initiatives': Bill upping vote requirement is called unjust for voters

Parents of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a shooter killed 17 people in 2018, push petitions for 2020 ban on assault weapons in Florida. MIAMI HERALD

The effort by Republicans to complicate the citizen-initiative ballot process marches on.

A joint resolution that would up the number of votes required to approve a constitutional amendment passed its second committee meeting Monday, raising the threshold from 60 percent to 66 and two-thirds percent.

Citizens will first have to vote on the amendment, which would then be approved by a three-fifths vote in both chambers of the Legislature.

Bill sponsor Rep. Rick Roth, a Loxahatchee Republican, said the bill is a “broad base approach” to protect the state’s constitution.

“The constitution is the document that defends the least able to defend themselves,” he said, “Not the wealthy or the lawyers who have millions of dollars to have a medical marijuana bill.”

If adopted, the resolution would take effect in 2021. The Senate version of the bill, put forward by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, has cleared its first two committee stops.  

The bills are not the first to make it more difficult to get constitutional amendments before voters this year, particularly before a crucial presidential election in which other groups hope to get before voters amendments banning assault weapons, requiring Medicaid expansion and raising Florida's minimum wage.

Another pair of bills put forward by Republicans would require, among other things, that ballot initiatives pay petitioners by wage or hour, not by signatures gathered; include the name of the initiative's sponsor on the ballot; disclose the percent of money raised by sources in-state and allow for interested parties to weigh in, and file a 50-word “position statement” either for or against the proposal to be posted on the Department of State’s website.

Lawmakers have steadily made it more difficult to amend Florida’s constitution in the past, limiting the amount of time a group has to collect signatures and raising the threshold for an amendment’s passage to its current 60 percent.

Without much power in Tallahassee over the last 20 years, progressive groups have been most successful pushing policies passed by voters who approved amendments.

Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat, said voters who care about topics like the environment, medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion turn to the ballot process to make change.

“Citizens have a real and effective voice in our government when it is clear that our legislature is not adequately addressing issues that are important to our citizens,” Good said. “This is, right now, the only answer that citizens have to this very, very broken process. Raising the bar is quashing the voice of the voters and the citizens of this state.”

The signature-focused bills would affect two major amendments that could appear on the 2020 ballot, one raising the minimum wage and the other allowing “energy choice,” advocates for those ideas say.

Alex Patton, chairman of a committee trying to get an energy-choice amendment initiative on the ballot, said that the bill makes it “obvious: that “the powers that be do not like citizens speaking up them.”

“In almost all cases, it’s impossible to get two-thirds of the state of Florida to agree on anything,” Patton said. “It’s going to kill ballot initiatives.”