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Human trafficking laws to be signed today

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014 by Christine Stapleton

Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign into law two bills today that will crack down on human trafficking of children for sex.

HB 989 makes sweeping changes to existing laws pertaining to the sexual abuse of children, especially children who are victims of human trafficking for prostitution. The bill, which picked up unanimous votes in the House and Senate, makes changes to the Florida Safe Harbor Act to better define sexual abuse and protect court records.

Source: U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security

Source: U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security

The new law will also provide up to $3,000 in relocation assistance for human trafficking victims, stiffens the penalties for human trafficking of children for sex, eliminates the statute of limitations for human trafficking offenses and creates a new penalty for traffickers who permanently brand their victims.

HB 7141, sponsored by Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart,creates a framework for the assessment and treatment of prostitutes identified as victims of human trafficking. The bill, which also cleared both chambers with unanimous votes, authorizes the use of “safe houses”  and safe foster homes for sexually exploited children.

The bill creates the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking with the Dept. of Legal Affairs to better coordinate efforts of law enforcement and social service agencies and requires the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability to study commercial sexual exploitation of children in Florida.

Most American victims of commercial sexual exploitation are runaway youths living on the street and become involved in prostitution to support themselves. The average age for girls is 12-14 and boys and transgender youth is 11-13, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

Pimp-contr0lled commercial sexual exploitation of children is often linked to escort and massage services, private dancing, major sports and recreational events, conventions and tourist destinations. About 20 percent of these children become part of crime networks, which transport the victims around the country on cars, buses, vans and trucks.

Although the data are not exact, the U.S. Dept. of State estimates as many as 27 million victims are being trafficked worldwide at any time. The department also estimates that there were  approximately40,000 victims of human trafficking in the United States in 2012. Florida is estimated to have the third highest rate of human trafficking in the United States, behind New York and California.






Scott says he’ll veto speed limit increase: “I don’t want anybody to be injured”

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Not so fast, Florida. Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday that he’s going to veto a proposal that could increase speed limits in places to 75 mph.

“There’s times I’d like to go faster,” Scott acknowledged.

But he said he’s heard plenty of opposition from law enforcement officials, including Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Tod Cloud. The governor was urged against the legislation (SB 392) by Cloud at last week’s funeral for Trooper Chelsea Richard, killed a week earlier on Interstate 75 near Ocala while investigating an accident.

“I’m going to stand with law enforcement. I want everybody to stay safe. I don’t want anybody to be injured, so I’m going to veto that bill,” Scott said.

Scott said, “By doing this, I think we’re doing the right thing for our troopers, for law enforcement.”



Abortion bills proof GOP wants to “turn the clock back” on women, Dems say

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A pair of abortion bills approved by the Republican-led Legislature and expected to be signed by Gov. Rick Scott are more evidence the party wants to “turn the clock back,” on women’s rights, three Democratic leaders said Tuesday.

Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was joined by Rep. Lori Berman of Lantana and Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief now running for Orange County mayor, in condemning the legislation (HB 59 and HB 1047).

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Wasserman Schultz called the measures “extremist” and examples of “tea party-infused legislation.”

Berman said the legislation was unnecessary. “Women make decisions to terminate pregnancies for a variety of reasons, and never are these decisions done lightly,” she said.

The Democrats, though, said they held little hope that Scott would veto the legislation, which passed the Legislature on mostly party-line votes.

One bill (HB 59) would allow separate criminal charges for the death of a fetus no matter what its stage of development was when a crime was committed against its mother. The other measure (CS/HB 1047) could effectively reduce the time period that a woman could legally have a late-term abortion by several weeks.

Rep. Lori Berman

Republican lawmakers during debate this spring called the bills “common sense” measures.

The legislation setting tougher penalties for harming a fetus was dubbed the “Florida Unborn Victims of Violence Act,” and stems from a Tampa case where a young woman six weeks pregnant, Remi Lee, was given pills by a former boyfriend, causing her to abort.

The bill would expand a law that already allows a separate manslaughter charge for a fetus that could survive outside the womb.

It also would toughen penalties for anyone convicted of a crime resulting in the death of a fetus, allowing murder charges to be leveled in cases where a fetus was considered viable, and lesser criminal charges in other cases.

The other bill would require a doctor to examine a woman wanting an abortion and refuse to perform the procedure if fetal viability was determined. Supporters of the bill have said that could prevent abortions around the 20th week of pregnancy, whereas Florida law currently bars most abortions following the 24th week.

Scott signs package of tax cuts, rounding out election-year, $500M-plus giveback

Monday, May 12th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Monday a $121 million package of election-year tax cuts — including breaks on everything from hurricane- and back-to-school supplies to kids’ bike helmets and car seats.

The signing — at the state’s annual Hurricane Conference in Orlando — brings to more than $500 million the total on the tax-and-fee reductions approved by lawmakers. The Republican governor earlier put the give-backs on the top of his legislative wish list.

“This year we worked to promote a $500 million reduction in taxes and fees because Florida families should keep more of the money they earn,” Scott said.

Scott already signed into law last month a $395 million rollback of motorist fees approved in 2009 under former Gov. Charlie Crist. The former Republican governor now is challenging Scott as a Democrat, giving that reduction some extra political mileage.

Near the land where dreams come true, CannaBiz Day to take place

Monday, May 12th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Steve DeAngelo, medical marijuana leader, will speak at CannaBiz Day in Orlando

With the Republican-led Legislature recently approving a measure legalizing a strain of medical marijuana in Florida, there is certainly something different in the political air.

Next month, the business-side of the marijuana industry will gather in Orlando for the state’s first CannaBiz Day — June 6.

Organizers said the event at the Royal Caribe Hotel, just down the road from DisneyWorld, will feature business owners, legal, real estate and finance professionals with real-world cannabis business experience. Also expected to attend are activists and policy makers involved in Florida’s marijuana movement.

Keynote speaker is Steve DeAngelo, who operates Harborside Health Center, a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Cal. Harborside was a pioneer in treating children suffering from severe epilepsy with the non-euphoric marijuana oil now dubbed Charlotte’s Web, which Florida lawmakers have approved for epilepsy and cancer victims.

Gov. Rick Scott has said he will sign the legislation into law.

Much of the one-day session, though, also will focus on the more sweeping medical marijuana initiative that is set to go on Florida’s November ballot as a constitutional amendment. That measure could broaden the use and cultivation of medical marijuana in the state.


On speed limit bill, all roads lead to Gov. Rick Scott

Saturday, May 10th, 2014 by John Kennedy

One of the most contested battles of the legislative session continues to divide lawmakers, with a proposal to increase state speed limits now fueling more wrangling focused on Gov. Rick Scott.

The clash over “how fast is safe” has crossed the median strip of Florida politics. Democratic and Republican legislators are scattered on both sides of the issue that Scott is expected to settle in coming weeks, either by allowing the legislation (CS/SB 392) to become law or vetoing it.

So far, he’s given no hints. But both sides are working him hard.

Two of the leading players are a pair of Palm Beach County Democrats whose districts are separated by less than 20 miles — but whose views are light years apart on the subject.

Rep. Irv Slosberg

“If you want road safety, this is a no-brainer. He’s got to veto it,” said Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, who has pushed for stricter seat-belt and texting-while-driving laws during his 10 years in the House.

But Sen. Jeff Clemens, a sponsor of the measure, says it would not heighten risks on Florida roadways.

“When you take a step back from the emotions of this issue, you realize that we’re talking about a difference of 5   mph — maybe,” said Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “That’s entirely reasonable.”

Sen. Jeff Clemens

Full story here:

Does GOP help Scott’s re-elect by adding new pages to playbook? (w/vid of session’s last night)

Sunday, May 4th, 2014 by John Kennedy

After years of budget-cutting and strict social policies, Florida’s ruling Republicans worked to soften some edges during the just-completed legislative session with steps that appear designed to bolster Gov. Rick Scott for a bruising re-election battle.

The $77.1 billion state budget approved by lawmakers late Friday is the largest in state history, filled with increased dollars for schools and environmental programs, and chocked with hometown spending on social services, museums, theaters and local government projects.

Full story here:

Record big budget could make big target for election-year Scott

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Florida Legislature approved a strain of medical marijuana, in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and the last piece of a $500 million package of tax-and-fee cuts Friday as it skidded toward the finish line of the 2014 session.

Following a frenzied last day of deal-making between the chambers, the House and Senate then both approved the $77.1 billion budget – the largest in state history — in lopsided votes after 10 p.m. and adjourned at 10:40 p.m.

The House voted 102-15 in favor of the budget and sent to the Senate, which approved it unanimously.

“I hope you’re as proud about this budget as I am,” said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. “I’m going to go home and brag about what we’ve done.”

House Democrats, however, said the spending plan shorted school funding and failed to help those without health insurance.

“There’s an opportunity to be great,” said House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston. “This doesn’t do it.”

Full story here:

A wrongful conviction, Legislature tries to make right

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014 by John Kennedy

James Richardson, wrongfully convicted of killing his children

Almost a half-century after James Richardson was wrongfully convicted and served more than two decades in prison, accused of poisoning his seven children, the Florida Senate approved a measure Friday making the elderly, former farmworker eligible for state compensation.

“This is our way of saying we take responsibility for the wrongful act of some others,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

The measure (CS/SB 326) was approved 38-0 by the Senate, sending it to Gov. Rick Scott.

Richardson, 78, had traveled to the Capitol from his home in Wichita, Kan., earlier this week and was introduced in the House and Senate galleries, drawing a standing ovation from House members.

But it wasn’t until the closing hours of the session Friday night that the bill came up for a Senate vote.

“If you ever meet this gentleman, Mr. Richardson, in addition to his story, what will impress you is his humility,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

Full story, video:

Richardson bill troubled in Senate as clock winds down

Friday, May 2nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

James Richardson

After being recognized in the House and Senate — and drawing a standing ovation from House members — it was growing likely that James Richardson would return to Kansas without legislation to compensate him for being wrongfully imprisoned in Florida for more than two decades.

Richardson, 78, has come from Wichita in expectation of the bill passing. He was honored by the two chambers and sat most of Thursday in the Senate gallery awaiting a vote on SB 326. But increased wrangling in the Florida Senate over a range of issues pushed the Richardson legislation to the bottom of the calendar Friday, the session’s final day.

Richardson lived in Arcadia when a few days before Halloween 1967, he was accused of poisoning his children when they came home for lunch. He was quickly convicted and condemned to death.

But a 1989 investigation ordered by then-Gov. Bob Martinez revealed wholesale misconduct by investigators and prosecutors, leading to Richardson being set free. Still, because of the circumstances of his case, Richardson does not qualify for state payment under the state’s five-year-old wrongful incarceration law.

A similar bill (CS/HB 227) was approved earlier this month 116-0 by the House. It would make Richardson eligible for $1.2 million in compensation. But as the clock wound down on the 2014 session, the measure was languishing.

Low-THC medical marijuana approved by Senate

Friday, May 2nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Florida Senate voted 30-9 Friday to allow doctors to prescribe low-THC medical marijuana to patients suffering from cancer or epilepsy.

The move came after Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, beat back efforts to open marijuana production to more growers in Florida. Bradley warned that the late-hour amendment could endanger the legislation, which cleared the House Thursday.

“We’re at day 60,” Bradley said of the two-month session. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Gov. Rick Scott has said that he would sign the legislation into law.

The measure would allow doctors to prescribe a liquid form of marijuana rich in cannabidiol, or CBD. The pot is low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound with produces a high.

Under the bill, the state’s Department of Health would establish four dispensing organizations in Florida to dispense the low-THC pot dubbed Charlotte’s Web.

The department also would create a DOH Office of Compassionate Use, which would compile a registry of patients who doctors consider eligible for being treated with the marijuana strain.

Beginning in January 2015, doctors treating patients for cancer or “severe and persistent muscle spasms” associated with epilepsy could prescribe the low-THC marijuana. Only residents of Florida could obtain a prescription, under the bill.

House OK’s instate tuition for immigrants, sending it to Scott

Friday, May 2nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Children of undocumented immigrants would be eligible for instate tuition in Florida under legislation that sailed Friday through the House on an 84-32 vote.

The legislation cleared the Senate a day earlier. It now goes to Gov. Rick Scott, who promised to sign it into law this election year.

House Republicans noted the legislation will reduce tuition for all students.

The measure (CS/HB 851) eliminates a provision in law that allowed Florida’s 12 public universities to hike tuition by as much as 15 percent annually. Instead, only Florida State University and the University of Florida will be able to seek tuition boosts higher than what’s granted by the Legislature — and then only as much as 6 percent-a-year.

But the instate provision for immigrants has been the chief focus of the legislation.

“I hope this signals an end to the anti-immigrant extremism that has prevailed in both of these houses for over a decade,” said Rep. Jose Rodriguez, D-Miami.

The legislation allows children of undocumented immigrants to qualify for instate tuition if they attended high school for three years in Florida.  Average non-resident tuition costs $21,434 annually, compared with the average $6,318
in-state fee.

Parasailing regulations headed to Gov. Rick Scott

Thursday, May 1st, 2014 by John Kennedy

Commercial parasailing operations, involved in several tragedies along Florida waterways in recent years, would gain state regulation for the first time under legislation headed to Gov. Rick Scott.

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, sponsored the measure (SB 320) approved 38-0 Thursday in the Senate. It also includes new restrictions on kite-boarding near airport runways, but the focus in on parasailing.

“I don’t care what else is on it, as long as we get this through,” said Sachs, who has struggled for several years to tighten oversight of parasail operations.

There have been 21 parasailing accidents in Florida from 2001 through last October, resulting in 23 injuries and six fatalities, according to state records.

In 10 of the accidents, high winds or gusts were found to be a contributing factor. In six of those 10 accidents, there was also equipment failure. The other 11 accidents reportedly were caused by a variety of factors, including operator error and equipment malfunctions.


Charlotte’s Web marijuana strain OK’d by House by epilepsy, cancer patients

Thursday, May 1st, 2014 by John Kennedy

Following emotional debate, the House voted 111-7 to approve legislation Thursday authorizing the use of a marijuana strain for treating patients with cancer and severe epilepsy.

The Senate is poised Friday — the two-month session’s final scheduled day — to endorse the move. The House sponsor of the measure (CS/SB 1030) Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, urged parents of children with Dravet Syndrome, looking on in the audience, to now work on Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott’s surgeon general, John Armstrong, has cautioned against the legislation saying the effects of the so-called Charlotte’s Web strain is untested.

“Get eyeball-to-eyeball with him,” Gaetz said on the House floor. “Move his heart the way you’ve moved ours.”

Richardson to look on today as Senate approves payment for years behind bars

Thursday, May 1st, 2014 by John Kennedy

James Richardson, 78, expected to look on today as Senate approves bill compensating him for years in prison.

An elderly man once convicted of one of the most heinous crimes in Florida history, spoke softly Wednesday, sitting in a law firm’s office two blocks from the state Capitol.

“We’ve tried to survive, the best we know how,” said James Richardson, 78, who lawmakers today are expected to be made eligible for $1.2 million in state compensation after he was wrongfully imprisoned for more than two decades, including four years on Death Row.

“No, I don’t have any animosity,” he added. “I can say that deeply from my heart. But I just was hurt.”

The Post spoke with Richardson who come to Tallahassee where the state Senate today is expected to approve a bill making him eligible for a $1.2 million payment for his years behind bars. The interview is here:


Speed limit bill squeaks through House, but opponents urge Scott to hit brakes

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Amid emotional debate, the Florida House approved a measure that could lead to higher speed limits on some stretches of state interstates and smaller roads.

The House voted 58-56 on the legislation (CS/SB 392) which authorizes the Florida Department of Transportation to add 5 mph to some limits on rural and lightly traveled roadways. The bill, whose sponsors include Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, now goes to Gov. Rick Scott for review.

“We are simply saying (to FDOT) you can increase the limit after you do your engineering studies,” said Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres.

But Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, a funeral director who also acknowledged that he has frequently been ticketed for speeding, argued against the move.

“I can’t do something in good conscience that is going to cost lives,” Baxley said.

The legislation would let FDOT study which stretches of highway could be boosted by 5 mph from the current 70 mph limit set in 1996.

Clemens has said he doesn’t envision speed limits rising on I-95 in South Florida. But rural and more isolated stretches of Florida’s interstates could qualify, he said.

The legislation also is aimed at allowing limits on some divided highways rise from 65 mph to 70 mph and other state roads now subject to 60 mph limits to also rise by 5 mph.

There are 16 states with speed limits of 75 mph or higher, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Legislation heading to Scott says goodbye to FCAT

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Beating back a push by Democrats seeking a longer delay, the Republican-ruled House approved a measure Wednesday revamping the state’s school-grading system and ushering in a replacement for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The so-far unnamed new test is being developed by the private firm, American Institutes for Research. But it is scheduled to replace the FCAT in the coming year and incorporate provisions of the Common Core Standards, the classroom system being used by Florida and more than 40 other states.

The legislation (CS/SB 1642) was approved 76-42 in a partyline vote. It now goes to Gov. Rick Scott, who is almost certain to sign it into law.

The bill would erase penalties schools could currently face for any ‘F’ or ‘D’ grades earned in the 2014-15 school year. But Democrats, backed by school superintendents from Palm Beach and many other districts, had pushed for a three-year pause in testing penalties.

Florida’s problems with FCAT testing, which included online interruptions that affected Palm Beach and other counties earlier this month, fueled Democratic concerns.

“Slow down the process so we get it right,” said Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa. “Instead, we’re rushing.”

Republicans, however, said it was important to continue moving forward in student assessment. The one-year penalty pause should be enough, they assured.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, an advocate of the Common Core, is among the groups supporting the legislation.

A governor’s tour and displays of rusty pipe helps yield $1M for Palm Beach County

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Palm Beach County officials first brought Gov. Rick Scott on a tour of the Glades water treatment plant and later shipped pieces of corroded piping to Capitol offices where they sat as rusty reminders of the local wish list.

But it wasn’t until the closing moments of back-and-forth negotiations on the state’s proposed $75 billion budget that $1 million was added, advancing plans to replace the leaking water system serving Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee.

“With a group effort, we got it done,” said Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, whose district includes the economically-strapped Glades area.

Helped by the state’s biggest budget surplus since pre-recession days, Florida lawmakers are freely spending state taxpayer cash on dozens of hometown projects along with taking election-year steps to increase spending on environmental programs, public schools and universities, child-protection services and health care.

State lawmakers, though, also are rolling the dice – reviving plenty of spending vetoed last year by Gov. Rick Scott, which includes the Glades’ pipe work.

$100K contribution among roadblocks on path to Charlotte’s Web

Monday, April 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Senate approved legislation Monday authorizing the use of a marijuana strain for treating victims of severe epilepsy, with several families and children suffering from the illness looked on from the gallery.

The so-called Charlotte’s Web legislation has drawn the blessing of Republican leaders in the Legislature but still faces an uncertain outcome as lawmakers lurch toward a scheduled Friday adjournment.

Some Republican leaders see it as potentially dulling support for a November ballot measure that would go further and legalize medical marijuana.

But the measure has become troubled since major Republican donor Mel Sembler, an opponent of softening marijuana laws, opened a political spending committee called Drug Free Florida with a $100,000 donation last month.

Soon after, Gov. Rick Scott’s Surgeon General, John Armstrong, testified before a House committee raising concerns with the legislation.

Some senators Monday traced their personal histories with the legislation, saying they came around to backing the proposal (CS/SB 1030) only after meeting with the parents seeking help for children with Dravet Syndrome, a severe epilepsy which affects 125,000 Florida youngsters.

The Senate approved authorizing doctors to prescribe the marijuana strain on a 36-3 vote.

“This is it,” said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach. “These folks are at the end of the line. We’re just trying to bring hope to these families.”

Amid a flurry of hometown spending, budget deal done

Monday, April 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The final touches to a roughly $75 billion state budget were settled Monday by House and Senate negotiators, clearing the way for an on-time finish this week to the 2014 Legislature.

A $1.2 billion surplus from the state’s improving economy eased spending decisions by budget-writers as they raced toward Friday’s session-end deadline.

But the extra cash also allowed lawmakers to steer millions of state dollars toward hometown projects – for arts programs, social services, water projects and college buildings. Many likely face the threat of Gov. Rick Scott’s veto pen.

“The budget isn’t about numbers, it’s about values and priorities,” said Senate Budget Chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, telegraphing a theme lawmakers will likely use in urging Scott to go light on vetoes this election year.

Negron and his House counterpart, Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, worked through the weekend settling a host of education, health care, transportation and environmental issues that had divided the two sides.

Among the last issues settled Monday were spending for college and university construction and almost $74 million scattered across some 200 water projects across the state.

In the mix, $6 million for Palm Beach State College’s long-sought Loxahatchee Groves campus – vetoed three times in recent years by Scott and his predecessor, Gov. Charlie Crist – and several wastewater projects in Belle Glade, Riviera Beach and Royal Palm Beach.

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