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News from the third week of the legislative session

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Various Reports

News Service of Florida

March 25, 2023

From News Service of Florida ...

House passes bill targeting ‘ESG’ (March 24)

In a priority of Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, the Florida House on Friday passed a measure that would prevent consideration of “environmental, social and governance” standards in investing government money. The Republican-controlled House voted 80-31 to approve the bill (HB 3) targeting what is known as “ESG.” Republican Reps. Carolina Amesty of Windermere (District 45) and Doug Bankson of Apopka (District 39) voted for the bill, while Democratic Reps. Bruce Antone of Orlando (District 41) and LaVon Bracy Davis of Ocoee (District 40) voted against it. Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, crossed party lines to join Republicans in supporting the bill. Gov. Ron DeSantis and members of the state Cabinet last year directed investment decisions in the Florida Retirement System Defined Benefit Plan to prioritize the highest returns without consideration of environmental, social and governance standards. The bill, which will go to the Senate, would expand that to all funds invested by state and local governments. The bill would require that state and local-government investment decisions be made “solely on pecuniary factors” and would prevent “sacrificing investment return or undertaking additional investment risk to promote any non-pecuniary factor.” It would prevent government fund managers from considering issues such as climate change and social diversity when deciding how to invest money.

Migrant records case appealed (March 24)

An open-government group is appealing a Leon County circuit judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit that alleged the Florida Department of Transportation and a contractor did not fully comply with public-records requests about controversial state-funded flights of migrants to Massachusetts. The Florida Center for Government Accountability this week filed a notice of appeal that is an initial step in asking the 1st District Court of Appeal to overturn the January ruling of Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey. The center has contended in the lawsuit that the Department of Transportation and the contractor, Vertol Systems Company, Inc., violated the state’s public-records law by not fully providing requested documents about the September flights of 49 migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard. The flights, engineered by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, have drawn national scrutiny. In two rulings, Dempsey concluded that the center did not prove the department and Vertol had withheld documents. “The burden is on the plaintiff to prove they made a specific request for public records, that Vertol received the request, the requested public records exist and Vertol refused to provide them in a timely manner,” Dempsey wrote in one of the decisions. “While plaintiff meets the first and second prongs of the test, there is no evidence that the public records exist or that Vertol refused to produce public records in a timely manner.” As is common, the notice of appeal does not detail arguments the non-profit center will make at the Tallahassee-based appeals court.

Senate takes aim at credit card companies (March 23)

The Florida Senate on Thursday passed a measure that seeks to prevent credit-card companies from using a code that could help track firearm and ammunition sales. The Republican-controlled Senate voted 27-11 along almost-straight party lines to approve the bill (SB 214), sponsored by Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills. Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, crossed party lines to vote for the bill.  (Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley of Eustis (District 13) voted for the bill and Democratic Sen. Geraldine Thompson of Windermere (District 15) voted against it.) The issue deals with the potential that credit-card companies could use a separate “merchant category code” for sales at firearms businesses. Similar four-digit codes are already used to separate purchases and collect data from places such as grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants and bookstores. “This bill is needed to protect consumers’ privacy and firearms rights and prevent the creation of a quasi-backdoor gun owners’ registry in Florida,” Burgess said. But Sen. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat who is a retired New York transit-police detective, said it is important for law enforcement to be able to trace information about the purchases of guns and ammunition used in crimes. “When you have a paper trail, you have substance as to who got this and where they got this,” Torres said. A House version of the bill (HB 221) has been approved by two subcommittees.

TikTok ban boosted in Senate (March 23)

A proposed TikTok ban on government devices would also apply to people using personal devices on government Wi-Fi networks, the Senate bill sponsor said Thursday. The Senate Fiscal Policy Committee approved a measure (SB 258), filed by Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, that would direct the state Department of Management Services to create a list of prohibited applications that it considers security risks, such as the Chinese-owned social media platforms TikTok and WeChat. The bill is now ready to go to the full Senate. “If you're on government Wi-Fi, you wouldn't be able to pull it down,” Burgess said. “We're gonna prohibit that from being accessible. But if you're on your own 5G, that's different.” Congress also has passed a measure aimed at removing TikTok from federal-government devices. Burgess called the platforms “literal spyware apps.” The House Constitutional Rights, Rule of Law & Government Operations Subcommittee on Wednesday approved the House version of the bill (HB 563), which is sponsored by Republican Rep. Carolina Amesty of Windermere (District 45).

Sexual orientation, gender identity law could expand (March 23)

A House committee on Thursday approved a bill that would bolster a process in which people can object to instructional materials and school-library books, while moving to broaden a controversial 2022 law that blocks instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity. The Republican-controlled House Education & Employment Committee approved the bill (HB 1069), which is now ready to go to the full House. The 2022 law barred instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The House committee Thursday approved changes to the bill to expand that prohibition to pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Democrats questioned the need to expand the sexual-orientation and gender-identity law, which was formally titled “Parental Rights in Education” but was disparagingly given the moniker “don’t say gay” by opponents. “We were told last session (kindergarten) through third (grade) was just simply too young to discuss this topic,” Rep. Patricia Williams, D-Pompano Beach, said. "Why are we coming now to expand it to eighth grade?” Bill sponsor Adam Anderson, R-Palm Harbor, said the topics should be discussed “between a parent and a child” at home. “It is my belief that children in middle school are probably some of the most impressionable students that we have,” Anderson said, noting he is a father of three. “I can tell you by experience that different children develop at different rates.” The bill also would make the process easier for people to object to instructional materials and library books, in part by requiring that objection forms are “easy to read and understand” and available on school-district websites. The measure also would bar school employees from telling students their preferred pronouns if those pronouns “do not correspond to his or her sex.” In addition, it would prevent employees from asking students about their preferred pronouns. Joe Saunders, senior political director for the LGBTQ-advocacy group Equality Florida, criticized the bill as “wrong” and “offensive” and characterized it as a move toward censorship.

Alimony overhaul moves forward (March 23)

A Senate committee Thursday approved the latest version of a decade-long effort to overhaul the state’s alimony laws, with supporters assuring skeptics the proposal wouldn’t harm current alimony recipients. The bill (SB 1416), which includes doing away with “permanent” alimony, comes after three earlier attempts to change alimony laws were vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Gov. Rick Scott. Bill sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, told the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee that this year’s bill is the product of 18 months of negotiations between The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section and proponents of changing the laws. Those groups have been fierce opponents in the past. “Every single provision in this bill has been agreed to by both the lawyers’ group and the reform group,” Gruters said. In vetoing a bill last year, DeSantis pointed to concerns about the measure allowing ex-spouses to have existing alimony agreements amended. While that bill would have required courts to modify alimony when a paying ex-spouse retired, this year’s bill would give judges the discretion to consider retirement issues when deciding whether to sign off on modifications. The plan would enshrine case law and court decisions from the past three decades, said Andrea Reid, a former chairwoman of the Family Law Section. “This bill is not unconstitutionally retroactive. I think there’s some confusion about the retroactive application of this bill because, yes, there are provisions in this bill that are going to apply to cases that are existing right now, to agreements that exist right now. But what is going to apply is the case law and the statute that’s been developed over 31 years,” Reid told the committee. Sen. Lori Berman, a Boca Raton Democrat who is a lawyer, unsuccessfully tried to get the committee to change the bill so it would not affect settlements executed before July 1. Berman called the latest measure a “much, much better bill than we’ve ever seen” but expressed concern about its retroactivity. Gruters noted that, in contrast to previous years when opponents flooded committee rooms, no one spoke against his bill on Thursday. But Camille Fiveash, who belongs to a “First Wives Advocacy” Facebook group, said in a text message that opponents’ absence doesn’t mean they support the bill. ”Not True! We could not afford to come and many of us are dealing with severe illness. We are old,” she said in the text. The Fiscal Policy Committee approved the measure in a 19-2 vote. An identical bill (HB 1409) has been filed in the House.

Lower gun-buying age headed to full House (March 23)

The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a bill that would lower the minimum age from 21 to 18 to buy rifles and other long guns, readying the proposal to go to the full House. The committee voted 16-6 to support the measure (HB 1543), sponsored by Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, and Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island. The bill would reverse part of a 2018 law that set the minimum age at 21 after a gunman killed 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Nikolas Cruz, then 19, used a semi-automatic rifle to carry out the attack. Federal law has long prevented people under 21 from buying handguns. Supporters of the bill have argued, in part, that the prohibition on people under 21 buying long guns violates the constitutional rights of young adults. “It’s always the wrong answer to punish the innocent,” Judiciary Chairman Tommy Gregory, R-Lakewood Ranch, said. “Raising the age from 18 to 21, I think in retrospect, was the wrong answer, because we are catching innocent Americans whose rights should be protected.” But Rep. Dan Daley, D-Coral Springs, said he is concerned that passing the bill could lead to “more Parklands” and school shootings. “We talk a heck of a lot in this building, and in this state, about freedom,” Daley said. “What about the freedom to not be shot? What about the freedom to go to school without the fear of being shot? What about the freedom to come home to your parents at the end of the day?” House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, has supported the bill, but Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, has said she opposes lowering the minimum age to 18. A Senate bill on the issue has not been filed.

Lawmakers could cap utility money transfers (March 21)

In a proposal that could cost some cities millions of dollars, a House panel on Tuesday approved a bill that would restrict how much money can be transferred from municipal utilities into city general funds. The House Energy, Communications & Cybersecurity Subcommittee voted 17-1 to approve the bill (HB 1331), filed by Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera, R-Coral Gables. Republican lawmakers in recent weeks have repeatedly questioned transfers of money from municipal utilities to bolster city budgets, in part because many utility customers live outside the boundaries of the cities. Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach, likened the situation to “taxation without representation” and said, “I don’t think the utilities should be able to transfer anything.” The bill would create a formula to cap the amounts of money that could be transferred. Under the formula, the caps would be linked to rates of “return on equity” established by the Florida Public Service Commission for private utilities. Return on equity is a closely watched measure of profitability. Caps would be decreased based on percentages of municipal utility customers who live outside city boundaries. Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey told the House panel that the proposal could lead to about a $10 million “hit” to the city’s general fund. He said that could lead to the city needing to increase its property-tax millage rate. Democratic Rep. Bruce Antone of Orlando (District 41) cast the lone dissenting vote. Money from the Orlando Utilities Commission is transferred to the city of Orlando general fund, he said. Ryan Matthews, a lobbyist for the Florida Municipal Electric Association, urged lawmakers to exempt rural communities from the transfer cap. He said some rural communities rely heavily on utility revenues to fund services because they do not have large tax bases.

Senate panel supports drag show crackdown (March 21)

Amid a crackdown by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration on drag-show performances, a Senate panel on Tuesday gave initial approval to a bill that would allow the state to revoke licenses of businesses that admit children to “adult live” performances. The Republican-dominated Judiciary Committee voted 8-3 to advance the proposal (SB 1438). Under the measure, the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, which is part of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, would be able to revoke licenses of lodging or food-service establishments for violations. The division also could issue fines of $5,000 for a first violation and $10,000 fines for subsequent violations. While the measure does not specifically use the term “drag,” opponents pointed to targeting drag shows. “In broad, general terms, an adult live performance is a presentation that depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct, or specific sexual activities,” a Senate staff analysis of the bill said. The measure comes as state officials have targeted venues that hosted drag shows with children in attendance. For example, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation recently sought to revoke the liquor license of an Orlando theater over a drag show event in December. “I speak with parents nearly everyday who share their concerns about the increasing prevalence of content across all forms of media that is inappropriate for young children. As a dad of young children, I share these concerns,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Clay Yarborough, a Jacksonville Republican who is sponsoring the bill. Opponents argued, in part, that the bill is overly broad. “Drag has always been a part of our society as an art form that can educate, empower and entertain. This manufactured moral panic about drag shows is about policing culture,” said Rin Alajaji, public policy associate for the LGBTQ-advocacy organization Equality Florida. Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, has filed an identical House bill (HB 1423).

Senate panel backs 6-Week abortion limit (March 20)

A proposal to prevent abortions after six weeks of pregnancy began moving forward Monday in the Florida Senate. The Senate Health Policy Committee approved the measure (SB 300), after lengthy and often-emotional testimony and debate. A House version (HB 7) got an initial approval last week from the House Healthcare Regulation Subcommittee. The bills were filed after the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis last year approved a 15-week limit. The U.S. Supreme Court then overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion-rights decision, effectively leaving regulation of abortion up to states. Supporters of the six-week limit have described it as a “heartbeat” bill because they say fetal heartbeats can be detected at about six weeks of pregnancy. “The point of this bill is that when we know life is present, we have an obligation to protect it,” Senate sponsor Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said Monday. But Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said a six-week limit would effectively ban abortion, as many women don’t know they are pregnant at six weeks or would have difficulty quickly accessing abortions. She said it would threaten the health of women and girls. “Women’s lives are being put at risk,” Book said. “What are we doing?” The bills include a major caveat: Seven abortion clinics and a physician filed a constitutional challenge to the 15-week limit. A key issue in that case is whether the limit violates a privacy clause in the Florida Constitution that has helped protect abortion rights in the state for more than three decades. Under the House and Senate bills, moving to a six-week limit would be contingent on the Florida Supreme Court effectively upholding the 15-week law. It is unclear when the court will rule on the challenge, though it probably will be after the legislative session.

Affordable housing plan headed to House floor (March 20)

A priority of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo to try to boost affordable housing is headed to the House floor. The House Ways & Means Committee on Monday voted 19-2 to approve a measure (HB 627) dubbed the “Live Local Act,” which includes providing incentives for investment in affordable housing and seeking more mixed-use developments in struggling commercial areas. “As our state continues to grow, we need to make sure Floridians can live close to good jobs, schools, hospitals and other critical centers for our communities that fit comfortably in their household budgets,” House sponsor Demi Busatta Cabrera, R-Coral Gables, said. The Senate on March 8 unanimously passed a similar bill (SB 102). As with the Senate version, the House proposal carries a $711 million price tag. Among other things, it would pre-empt local-government rules on zoning, density and building heights in certain circumstances, create tax exemptions for developments that set aside at least 70 units for affordable housing, speed permits and development orders for affordable housing projects and bar local rent controls. Democrats continued to express concerns about the rent-control prohibition and local government pre-emption. “Do I like preemptions? I absolutely do not,” Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said. “But I applaud the fact that President Passidomo has put together a bill that would make me vote for it, even though I don't like some parts of it.” Busatta Cabrera said the state has a housing shortage that needs to be addressed. “We don't have enough apartments, enough homes available for those that need them,” Busatta Cabrera said. “The rent-control provision, that would not help fix our crisis.” The bill would provide money for a series of programs, including $252 million for the longstanding State Housing Initiatives Partnership, or SHIP, program, $150 million a year to the State Apartment Incentive Loan, or SAIL, program, and an additional $100 million for the Hometown Heroes program, which is designed to help teachers, health-care workers and police officers buy homes. The state budget for the current year includes $362.7 million for affordable housing.

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