News from the second week of the legislative session
News Service of Florida
March 17, 2023
From News Service of Florida ...
School book rules draw challenge (March 17)
The Florida Education Association teachers union and two other groups said Friday they have filed a challenge against the state Department of Education over new rules related to school books. The FEA, the Florida Freedom to Read Project and Families for Strong Public Schools argue, in part, that the Department of Education overstepped its legal authority in rules that carry out a 2022 law placing a series of requirements on schools related to books and instruction curriculums. As an example, the law said that an employee with a “valid educational media specialist certificate” must select books made available in media centers or on recommended or assigned reading lists. But the groups contend that one of the challenged rules improperly carries out that part of the law. “The breadth of the … rule’s requirement that books available through a library media center must be selected by school staff with educational media specialist certification, combined with the unprecedented definition of ‘library media center’ that incorporates nearly every book in a school building, effectively prevents classroom teachers from choosing books for their own classrooms and parents from donating books or otherwise contributing to their children’s schools,” the challenge said. “Because the …rule has the effect of impermissibly enlarging, modifying or contravening the legislative intent that is discernible from a plain reading of the statute, it is invalid.” The groups said they had filed a petition at the state Division of Administrative Hearings, though it had not been posted to the division’s website Friday morning.
Race instruction law kept on hold (March 16)
A federal appeals court Thursday kept on hold a controversial Florida law that restricts the way race-related concepts can be taught in universities. Attorneys for the state went to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in November issued a preliminary injunction against the law, finding that it violated First Amendment rights. The state asked the Atlanta-based appeals court for a stay of the injunction — which would have allowed the law’s restrictions to be in effect while the legal battle played out. But a three-judge panel of the appeals court issued a two-paragraph order Thursday denying the state’s request for a stay. The appeals court did not explain its decision. The law has been a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who dubbed it the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or “Stop WOKE Act.” It lists a series of race-related concepts and says it would constitute discrimination if students are subjected to instruction that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates or compels” them to believe the concepts. In issuing the injunction, Walker described the law as “positively dystopian.” The law also placed restrictions on how race-related concepts can be addressed in workplace training. Walker in September issued an injunction against the workplace-training portion of the law, and an appeal of that ruling also is pending.
Transgender treatment ban takes effect (March 16)
Florida doctors could lose their medical licenses if they order puberty blockers, hormone therapy or surgery for minors diagnosed with gender dysphoria, under a Florida Board of Medicine rule that took effect Thursday. Opponents of the ban, pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, pledged to file a lawsuit challenging the rule. A Florida Board of Osteopathic Medicine rule with identical prohibitions will take effect March 28. The state Department of Health in July filed a petition seeking a rule-making process on the contentious issue of treatment for gender dysphoria, which the federal government defines clinically as “significant distress that a person may feel when sex or gender assigned at birth is not the same as their identity.” DeSantis is among GOP politicians nationwide targeting gender-affirming care for minors. DeSantis and Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo argue that gender-affirming treatment for youths is experimental and not backed by robust clinical research. But dozens of medical associations contend that the state’s approach is at odds with widely accepted guidelines and that gender-affirming treatment is safe, effective and medically necessary. Under the new rules, minors currently being treated with puberty blockers or hormone therapies would be allowed to continue the treatment. Children who have begun to socially transition but have not started puberty blockers, however, would be ineligible for such treatment. In a news release Thursday, several LGBTQ-advocacy groups said they are preparing to challenge the treatment ban in federal court. Simone Chriss, director of the Transgender Rights Initiative at Southern Legal Counsel, said the state’s policy is contradicted by evidence and science. “There is an unbelievable degree of hypocrisy when a state that holds itself out as being deeply concerned with protecting ‘parents’ rights’ strips parents of their right to ensure their children receive appropriate medical care,” Chriss said in a prepared statement. Chriss is among the lawyers in a separate case challenging a decision by the state Agency for Health Care Administration to stop Medicaid reimbursements for gender-affirming care for children and adults. The new Board of Medicine rule took effect as lawmakers consider proposals that would enshrine the prohibition against gender-affirming treatment for minors in state law and impose other restrictions. A Senate measure would make it a felony for doctors or other health-care professionals to order puberty blockers, hormone treatment or surgery for transgender minors.
House, Senate back union changes (March 16)
Florida House and Senate panels Thursday approved bills that would make a series of controversial changes affecting public-employee unions. The Senate version (SB 256), which was approved by the Fiscal Policy Committee, is now ready to go to the full Senate. The bills have drawn heavy opposition from organized labor, as they include changes such as preventing public-employee union members from having dues deducted from their paychecks. Members would have to separately pay dues. Also, for example, the bills would require recertification of unions as bargaining agents if they represent less than 60 percent of eligible employees. The bills would exempt unions representing law-enforcement officers and firefighters from the changes. The House Constitutional Rights, Rule of Law & Government Operations Subcommittee voted 10-5 on Thursday to approve the House version of the bill (HB 1445). House sponsor Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, said the bill would provide “transparency” for workers. Senate sponsor Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said the changes wouldn’t take away collective-bargaining rights. “There is nothing in this bill preventing an employee from joining a union,” Ingoglia said. But opponents blasted the proposed changes. “Most Floridians care about how they can put food on their tables and feed their families and how they can pay their bills that increase daily,” Rep. Jervonte Edmonds, D-West Palm Beach, said. “When they go to work, they want to at least feel that someone has their back if there is an issue at the workplace, the workplace they give eight hours, or one-third of their day, to.”
Local law challenges backed in House (March 15)
After the Senate passed a similar measure last week, the House started moving forward Wednesday with a bill that would help people legally challenge city and county ordinances. The House Local Administration, Federal Affairs & Special Districts Subcommittee voted 13-4 to approve the bill (HB 1515), sponsored by Rep. Robbie Brackett, R-Vero Beach. 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. The bill is supported by groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Retail Federation, the Florida Home Builders Association, Florida Realtors, the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties. But critics focused Wednesday on the part of the bill that would lead to suspensions of ordinances during lawsuits. “This is allowing a single business to veto the work of the entire community,” said Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO. The Senate voted 29-11 last week to pass its version of the bill (SB 170).
GOP candidates file for Baxley seat (March 15)
With Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Eustis, facing term limits next year, two Republicans have opened campaign accounts to try to succeed him. Umatilla Republican Cheryl “CJ” Blancett opened an account this week to run in Senate District 13 in Lake and Orange counties, according to the state Division of Elections website. Winter Garden Republican Bowen Kou opened an account for the race last week. Clermont Democrat Stephanie Dukes had earlier opened an account.
Senate passes construction lawsuit changes (March 15)
The Florida Senate on Wednesday passed a proposal that would shorten the time for residents to file lawsuits about construction defects in their homes. Senators voted 31-8 to approve the bill (SB 360), filed by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine. The bill deals with a series of issues, including lawsuits about “latent” construction defects — essentially defects that can remain hidden from homeowners for years — and what is known in the legal world as a “statute of repose.” The bill, in part, would shorten the statute of repose for filing lawsuits about construction defects from 10 years to 7 years. The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved a similar bill (HB 85), sponsored by Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart. That bill is ready to go to the full House.
House panel backs school tech requirements (March 14)
A proposal headed to the full House would place new requirements on the use of school computer devices and networks. The House Education & Employment Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved the proposal (HB 379), which includes prohibiting the social-media platform TikTok from being accessed on devices owned by school districts, “or as a platform to communicate or promote any district school, school-sponsored club, extracurricular organization, or athletic team.” It also would prevent the use of district-owned devices and servers from accessing websites or applications that do not have certain “Internet safety” policies. Another part of the bill would require middle- and high-school students to receive instruction about the “social, emotional, and physical effects of social media.” Bill sponsor Brad Yeager, R-New Port Richey, pointed to increased use of social-media platforms as a reason why the bill is needed. “This rise in social-media use has shown an increase in cyberbullying, as well as multiple impacts on mental health among kids,” Yeager told the House panel.
Partisan school board elections head to full House (March 14)
Florida voters would decide whether to hold partisan school-board elections under a proposed constitutional amendment that is ready to go before the full House. The House Education & Employment Committee voted 15-5 on Tuesday to approve the proposal (HJR 31). School-board races currently are required by the state Constitution to be non-partisan. Under the bill, voters would be asked in 2024 to pass a constitutional amendment to move to partisan elections. If the amendment passes, partisan school-board races would begin in 2026. Democrats on the panel questioned why the proposed change is needed. Sponsor Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, argued the proposal would give voters the most information possible about candidates. The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee on Tuesday approved an identical proposal (SJR 94), sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota. The Senate proposal needs approval from two more committees before it could go to the full Senate. Some school-board races have become high-profile contests in recent years amid battles about issues such as mask requirements aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, took the rare step of endorsing a slate of dozens of school-board candidates before the November elections, most of whom went on to claim victories.