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News from the first week of the legislative session

Archival footage of Florida's 2022 session

Various reports

News Service of Florida

March 12, 2023

From News Service of Florida ...

Voucher expansion heads to full House (March 10)

A proposal that would make all Florida students eligible to receive taxpayer-backed school vouchers is headed to the full House, after getting some changes Friday. The Republican-controlled House Education Quality Subcommittee approved the proposal (HB 1) in a near party-line vote. The bill would massively expand eligibility for vouchers, including allowing families of home-schooled students to receive the assistance. Also, it would establish what are commonly known as “education savings accounts,” or ESAs. The vouchers could be used on a range of purchases, including such things as instructional materials and fees for various exams. The House panel approved changes Friday that brought the bill closer to alignment with a Senate version (SB 202). For instance, one change would require the State Board of Education to develop recommendations designed to “reduce regulation of public schools.” Lawmakers could consider the recommendations next year. But critics of the bill questioned the proposal about deregulation. Marie-Claire Lehman, with the group Fund Education Now, said that part of the bill “feels a little bit insincere given the number of bills this session that are going to continue to overregulate our public schools.” Another change adopted Friday would allow using vehicles other than buses to transport students. Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, said a shortage of bus drivers, in part, prompted the change. “What this will do is, it will allow for — there are some companies that have been vetted through the (state) Department of Education to provide these services,” Valdes said. Another change, which is not included in the Senate version, would direct the education commissioner to develop an online portal aimed at helping families choose from the “range of school choice options” offered in Florida.

Teleheath eyed for medical marijuana (March 9)

A Florida House panel unanimously signed off on a proposal that would allow doctors to renew patients’ medical-marijuana approvals using telehealth. Bill sponsor Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, told the House Healthcare Regulation Subcommittee that the bill (HB 387) would “treat this (medical marijuana) like any other medicine.” More than 2,500 doctors have undergone training that allows them to order medical marijuana for patients. Voters approved a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly authorized medical marijuana, and nearly 800,000 patients have been certified for the treatment. Under current law, doctors must conduct a physical examination of a patient “while physically present in the same room as the patient” before ordering marijuana. Gov. Ron DeSantis temporarily suspended the face-to-face requirement because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but only for patients who were renewing medical-marijuana certifications with the same doctors they had seen previously. The executive order expired in mid-2021, but some practitioners are frustrated about doctors who continue to use telehealth for recertifications and even initial visits. Barry Gordon, a Venice-based physician who specializes in medical-marijuana care, told the House panel that using telehealth for recertifications would benefit some of the sickest Floridians. “It’s a cost-savings for patients, it’s safe for patients, and it’s critical,” Gordon said. “You have to remember that our patients are sometimes the most debilitated and weakest of the patients here in Florida.” The measure also would allow the Department of Health to suspend a physician from being able to order medical marijuana for up to two years if he or she “provides, advertises or markets telehealth services prior to July 1, 2023.” Currently, the state agency must direct complaints about medical-marijuana doctors to its Division of Medical Quality Assurance, which Roach said “is a long process.” The change “would add a necessary and immediate tool to help the department when physicians break the rules,” he added. Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, has filed a similar bill for consideration during the 60-day legislative session that began Tuesday.

Court upholds gun age law by Dara Kam (March 9)

Citing gun restrictions dating to the Reconstruction era, a federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a 2018 Florida law that prevents sales of rifles and other long guns to people under age 21.

The law, passed in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is one of the only firearm restrictions approved by the Legislature in decades. Federal law already prohibited the sale of handguns to people under 21.

Lawmakers passed the measure weeks after Nikolas Cruz, who was 19 at the time, used an AR-15 rifle to kill 17 students and staff members and injure 17 others at the Broward County school.

The National Rifle Association quickly filed a federal lawsuit, arguing in part that the law imposes an unconstitutional restriction on the Second Amendment rights of people under 21.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker rejected the challenge in 2021, ruling that previous court opinions have given states leeway to impose Second Amendment restrictions in some instances. The NRA appealed, and a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments last year.

Thursday’s decision relied heavily on guidance from a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in a case known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which said gun laws must be “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The history shows Florida’s 2018 law is consistent with such tradition, Judge Robin Rosenbaum wrote in an opinion joined fully by Judge Anne Conway. Judge Charles Wilson wrote a short concurring opinion.

The ruling mapped out the historical record on age restrictions since the Reconstruction era. It also said the Florida law allows people under 21 to possess or use guns, such as guns that they receive as gifts.

“To begin with, the act is no more restrictive than its forebearers: While the act burdens 18-to-20-year-olds’ rights to buy firearms, unlike its Reconstruction era analogues, it still leaves 18-to-20-year-olds free to acquire any type of firearm — including ‘the quintessential self-defense weapon,’ the handgun … in legal ways, as long as they don’t buy the weapons,” Rosenbaum wrote.

In the mid-1800s, Rosenbaum wrote, Alabama and Tennessee laws prohibited selling, loaning or giving guns to people under 21, which was the age of majority in both states at the time. A similar law passed by Kentucky in 1859 included an exception allowing parents to give deadly weapons to their children.

The Alabama and Tennessee laws imposed “a greater burden on the right to keep and bear arms than does the (Florida) act, which leaves 18-to-20-year-olds free to obtain firearms through legal means other than purchasing,” Rosenbaum wrote.

Senate aids challenges to local laws (March 8)

The Florida Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that could bolster legal fights against city and county ordinances. The Republican-controlled Senate voted 29-11 along almost-straight party lines to approve the measure, sponsored by Sen. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City. Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, joined Republicans in voting for the bill (SB 170). “If a local government decides to enact policies that are arbitrary, unreasonable or already pre-empted by the state, citizens should have recourse,” Trumbull said. But he said he hopes part of the bill requiring local governments to provide information about business impacts before passing ordinances will sometimes lead to officials pressing the “pause button.” Under the bill, plaintiffs who successfully challenge ordinances in court could receive up to $50,000 for attorney fees and costs. Also, the bill would require local governments to suspend enforcement of ordinances while lawsuits play out. Rep. Robbie Brackett, R-Vero Beach, filed a similar House bill (HB 1515) on Tuesday.

Senators eye changes in lawsuits limits bill (March 7)

A Senate committee Tuesday approved a bill that seeks to shield businesses and insurance companies from costly lawsuits, but Democrats and Republicans said they want to see changes. Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican who is sponsoring the bill (SB 236), said he will continue trying to find a “balance” in negotiations with the House. The bill, approved by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, would revamp a series of laws dealing with issues such as attorney fees, medical costs and what is known as “bad faith.” Sen. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, and Sen. Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, expressed concerns about how the bad-faith changes could affect small businesses. Generally, bad-faith cases involve allegations that insurers did not properly handle and settle claims. Meanwhile, Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, expressed concern about part of the bill that would eliminate what are known as “one-way attorney fees” in lawsuits against insurers. One-way attorney fees have long required insurers to pay the attorney fees of plaintiffs who are successful in lawsuits. “We’re setting up a David and Goliath system,” Thompson said. House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, has made the changes, commonly known as tort reform, a top priority for the legislative session that started Tuesday. The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the House version of the bill (HB 837) on Wednesday.

School board residency change backed (March 7)

A Senate committee Tuesday approved a proposal that would change a residency requirement for school-board candidates. Under current law, candidates have to live in the districts they are seeking to represent at the time they qualify to run. The bill (SB 444), approved by the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, would require candidates to live in the districts at the time they assume office. Senate sponsor Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said the bill would bring the requirement for school-board candidates in line with requirements for people running for other offices. He said the current school-board residency requirement has created confusion for candidates. But Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, raised concerns that the bill would lead to people searching “out seats to run for.” The House Ethics, Elections & Open Government Subcommittee is slated to take up the House version of the bill (HB 411) on Wednesday.

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