The Florida Legislature officially gets back to doing the people’s business on Tuesday, at least that’s the hope. As always, there are tons of issues that will have an impact — for good or for ill — on Floridians’ quality of life.
Although Florida and its leaders generally received high marks for getting the state through fickle Hurricane Irma, the storm’s lessons cannot be ignored: The horrific, and wholly unnecessary, deaths of more than a dozen residents in the Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center, who languished in the hot facility long after it lost electrical power must lead to requiring nursing homes to install back-up generators. This is the main issue in dispute. Lawmakers should ensure nursing homes have the wherewithal to comply — tax breaks could help — and ultimately, legislators must keep the health and well-being of nursing-home residents top of mind.
Still, lawmakers seem loath to tackle the weaknesses in infrastructure, but must put new limits on construction in high-risk areas on the table.
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Last year, a bill included $140 million for the proposed “Schools of Hope” program, aimed at attracting privately managed charter schools to compete with near-failing public schools in poor neighborhoods. This year, there are more efforts to poach public school students for charter schools. HB 1 includes the creation of the Hope Scholarship program allowing public school students who are bullied to transfer to other public schools or private schools with free or discounted tuition. Bullying never, ever, happens in private schools, right?
Unfortunately, state lawmakers — via Senate Bill 540 — are gunning for community colleges, proposing to create a new government agency in Tallahassee to oversee them, taking away local control. The bill offers other onerous restrictions. This warrants pushback.
The Miami Herald’s “Fight Club” investigative series exposed the brutal conditions at some juvenile centers where guards encouraged youths to dish out punishment to fellow detainees, sometimes with fatal results. The series provided an impetus for lawmakers to seek reforms and accountability to protect young people the state is charged — or should be charged — with helping find a straighter path. It should also ensure any adults culpable for initiating deadly fights are criminally punished.
Support is growing to make Florida the 46th state in which texting while driving is a primary offense, not a secondary offense. In other word, police would pull over a driver simply for texting. This is the goal of HB 33, sponsored by Reps. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton. But not so fast. Some members of the legislative black caucus are unwilling to give police more power, fearing that it could encourage more racial profiling. It’s not an unfounded fear.
Already rattled by the sexual misbehavior of Florida lawmakers who have been forced to resign, two Broward Democrats have filed legislation to create new penalties for sexual misconduct by public officials and establish a permanent task force to break the code of silence in Tallahassee. Kudos to bill sponsors, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek.
Ever since Floridians overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1 in 2014 to provide money to pump new life into the Florida Forever land-buying program, lawmakers have, instead, been starving it to death. They have siphoned the money for other uses, including salary increases for parks employees. This runs directly counter to what their constituents wanted when they approved Amendment 1 with 75 percent of the vote statewide. The amendment’s intent is to help the state buy and protect environmentally fragile and natural places. This hasn’t happened, thanks to lawmakers who go loony when there’s a big pot of money around.
Sen. Rob. Bradley, R-Fleming Island, is seeking $100 million for Florida Forever. Bravo. Gov. Scott is only asking for $50 million. Bradley’s request needs to be supported. Otherwise, lawmakers better explain why they prefer to let their constituents wade knee-deep onto streets that flood on a sunny day rather than preserve wetlands that can serve as a sponge.
The First Amendment Foundation is Floridians’ government-in-the-sunshine watchdog, vigilantly flagging legislative efforts to hide what should be public information from taxpayers. This session, fortunately, FAF finds several bills that it likes:
▪ HB 589 broadens Sunshine Law requirements to include entities created by law and it specifies that adoption of resolutions, rules, ordinances and codes aren’t binding unless adopted at public meetings. It also requires publication of an agenda and all materials and attachments at least three days before a meeting and gives each member of the public the right to speak for at least three minutes at a meeting.
▪ HB 273 prohibits an agency receiving a public-record request from filing a civil action against the requestor in response.
▪ Remember that contract between Visit Florida and Pitbull? The one where the tourism-development agency wouldn’t say just what Florida taxpayers were getting for their million bucks? HB 459/SB 956 would make sure that the public has a right of access to all information about contracts entered into by any agency or entity that is subject to the Public Records Act.
Each of these bills reinforces the state’s accountability to the public and important decisions made on its behalf. After years and years of adding exemptions meant to shut out public scrutiny of the public’s business, it’s encouraging to see some lawmakers remembering whom they serve. (And yes, there are also bad bills here. We’ll snarl as the session gets under way.)