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Senate boosts school money amid voucher fight

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The Florida Senate released a budget proposal Tuesday that would boost a key part of education spending by $1.1 billion next year, amid a fierce debate about whether to expand school vouchers.

The budget proposal, outlined by Education Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would translate to a 4.71 percent increase per student during the 2019-2020 year, or about $350. That would be substantially higher than Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget proposal, which called for an increase of $224 a student.

The proposed increase would be in the Florida Education Finance Program, a critical formula used in parceling out money to schools throughout the state. The proposal is only an initial version and could change substantially as the Senate and House negotiate a final budget before the scheduled May 3 end of the legislative session.

House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is Stargel’s counterpart, is expected to outline a House budget proposal Wednesday.

The release of the Senate proposal also came as Stargel’s panel approved a controversial bill (SB 7070) that would expand school vouchers in the state — an issue that has long been tangled in debates about education funding. The Education Appropriations Subcommittee passed the measure in a 5-3 vote along party lines.

Part of the bill would create a new voucher program, dubbed the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, that could provide vouchers to pay for as many as 15,000 students a year to attend private schools. Money for the new vouchers would come from the Florida Education Finance Program, better known as the FEFP, and total as much as $110 million next year.

Families could qualify for the voucher program if their incomes do not exceed 260 percent of the federal poverty level, or $66,950 for a family of four. A House proposal to create such a program would be broader, applying to families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $77,250 for a family of four.

A parade of educators, parents and advocates spoke to the Senate panel Tuesday on both sides of the voucher debate and other issues in the bill, including an overhaul of the state’s Best and Brightest teacher bonus program. Critics of the bill said lawmakers should focus on spending money to increase teacher salaries.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat who represents parts of Miami-Dade County, said low pay prevents teachers from living in many parts of his district. He also questioned the message being sent with voucher-type programs as students leave struggling public schools to go to private schools.

“What are we saying to the public-school kids who are left in the public schools that other families are racing to get out of?” he asked.

But Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said school-choice programs are about “freedom” as families decide where children will be educated.

“The empowerment of people making choices about their own life is tremendous,” Baxley said. “And I have seen so many changed lives when you empower them with the choice.”

Stargel also said the proposed increase in the education budget would provide $600 million that school districts would have the flexibility to use for raising teacher salaries.

“It’s a monumental shift from what we have done in the past,” Stargel said after the meeting.

House cuts tourism, economic development money

Florida Capitol

The tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida would only be funded for three months, while Enterprise Florida wouldn’t get any state money as part of a budget proposal released Tuesday by a House panel for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

Also left out of the House proposal was continuation of an $85-million-a-year economic-development effort, known as the Job Growth Grant Fund, that was created in a compromise between the House and former Gov. Rick Scott.

Meanwhile, the House would set up a $50 million grant program to offset local and county revenue losses and operating costs from Hurricane Michael, and the state Division of Emergency Management would receive money for 20 new positions.

The House proposal was released Tuesday by the chamber’s Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee. It could be changed by the House in the coming weeks and then will be subject to negotiations with the Senate as lawmakers finalize a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The Senate proposal that covers similar areas of government and programs will be released Wednesday.

Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican who chairs the House subcommittee, said the $15 billion House proposal “takes care of a significant portion of the majority of issues facing our state.”

House Republican leaders in recent years have opposed funding for Visit Florida and for Enterprise Florida, a public-private economic development agency. Scott, who left office in January, battled to maintain funding for the agencies.

Under the House proposal, Visit Florida would get $19 million, which would cover the tourism agency until Oct. 1. That is when the agency is scheduled to be “sunset,” or eliminated, unless it is reauthorized. The House wouldn’t provide any state funding for Enterprise Florida.

“It (Visit Florida) is slated to sunset, and so we are funding it, that’s what we’re statutorily bound to do,” Trumbull said. “Until we see a piece of legislation that continues that, that’s where we’ll stay.”

Trumbull echoed a comment made this month by House Speaker Jose Oliva about the fate of the tourism-marketing agency.

The Senate has moved forward with a bill (SB 178) that would provide $76 million in funding for Visit Florida, the same amount as in the current year and matching an amount requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Senate bill would also reauthorize — with no end date — the tourism agency in state law.

An identical bill in the House (HB 6031) has not been heard in committees.

Enterprise Florida also has been targeted by the House, where leaders have characterized incentives used to lure companies from other states as “corporate welfare.”

In 2017, lawmakers created the Job Growth Grant Fund after a battle between Scott and House leaders about economic-development spending. The fund, which Scott depleted shortly before DeSantis took office, is located in the Department of Economic of Opportunity.

DeSantis has backed keeping the fund, at least for this year.

“If it’s something I don’t think is getting a bang for the buck, I won’t recommend it next year,” DeSantis said in February after including the fund in his $91.3 billion budget proposal. “But I think for this year, it’s something I should see what I can do with it.”

The House budget proposal includes $12.5 million for the public-private agency Space Florida, which DeSantis has supported as he seeks to make the state a key part of President Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force.

“Space Florida, the entity the Legislature created to grow Florida’s place in the industry, continues to attract new employers and revitalize the market, generating thousands of high-wage jobs and tens of billions of dollars of economic activity,” Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, a former House member who now chairs the Space Florida Board of Directors, tweeted Tuesday.

The House proposal also includes a $50 million grant program to help Northwest Florida counties severely damaged in October’s Hurricane Michael. Along with helping offset local and county revenue losses and operating costs, the money would be available for debris removal, beach renourishment and infrastructure repair.

A separate line item offers $49.45 million in affordable-housing money for low- and moderate-income families in hurricane-impacted counties, mirroring the State Housing Initiatives Partnership Program.

Storm-related funding would send $2.2 million to Bay County for emergency protective measures, $750,000 for parks and beaches access and $3 million for road repairs. The city of Parker is budgeted for $37,500 for road safety, $25,000 for protective measures and $183,000 for building repairs, all tied to the storm.

The proposal also includes $1.8 million to help nine largely rural counties — Bradford, Columbia, Franklin, Gadsden, Hamilton, Hardee, Suwannee, Union, and Wakulla — bulk up emergency operations centers to minimum hurricane building standards.

The state Division of Emergency Management would get $1.5 million to cover the addition of 20 new positions, $1.5 million for redesign of the state Emergency Operations Center and $350,000 to address employee workload due to recent storms.

Moody backs immigration proposal

Ashley Moody, Republican candidate for Florida Attorney General
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Attorney General Ashley Moody supports a Senate proposal that would give her the authority to file civil actions against local governments that do not fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

“City officials must obey the laws that they swore to uphold,” Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for Moody, said in a prepared statement. “The attorney general believes immigration laws should be respected and enforced and she supports the bill in its current form.”

The Senate is moving forward with a bill that would ban so-called sanctuary cities. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, would give Moody the authority to file civil actions, such as seeking injunctions, against state or local government entities or law-enforcement agencies that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. Currently, there are no “sanctuary cities” in Florida. The Senate bill (SB 168), which is a watered-down version of a House proposal, has sped through committees and will next be heard by the Senate Rules Committee. It could then go to the full Senate.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who opposes the bill, was critical of the possibility that the attorney general could file civil actions.

“This provision is about intimidating local officials into spending local tax dollars to go after neighbors in their communities who happen to be immigrants regardless of whether they are a threat to public safety,” Rodriguez said. “If it’s not related to public safety, it’s the role of the federal government to enforce immigration law, and our attorney general should not be distracted from critical priorities like the ongoing opioid crisis or the epidemic of gun violence.”

Economic Impact to Local Businesses Exists with Offshore Development

Julio Fuentes

Julio FuentesJust two weeks ago, I was in Jacksonville to attend a luncheon sponsored by the First Coast Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Petroleum Council. The subject of the presentation consisted of discussions regarding offshore energy development. Many of the attendees were local small business owners who were curious about the economic benefit offshore energy exploration would have to their business. The numbers were staggering, and we learned the many layers of benefits to Floridians.

Most of us travel each day to and from work, charge our cell phones and wash our clothes – all using energy. All these conveniences and more have been done with relatively low cost, thanks in large part to the production of energy in America. We are currently the top producer of oil and natural gas.

Many consumers, myself included, sometimes take energy industry’s innovations for granted. We neglect to consider what our lives would be like without it – a sad reality for those in other parts of the world. We also are not as educated on where our energy is actually coming from.

Floridians consume over 20 million gallons of gasoline every single day. Our population is growing, and that means our energy needs are, too. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nearly 75 percent of our state’s electricity is generated from natural gas. That’s why it is crucial to continue to support many forms of natural gas and oil exploration and development.

The Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (FSHCC) has always supported an “all of the above” energy approach, meaning we believe all forms of energy should be used so long as it can be done safely. We simply cannot afford to exclude any form of safe energy production, especially if we want to maintain robust energy supplies for consumers, add jobs and revenue to the economy, and keep our nation secure from volatile foreign nations.

Offshore development is a proven way to extract energy from beneath the ocean floor, which is then processed and consumed. Before any potential drilling occurs, scientists conduct seismic surveys to determine if an opportunity for exploration exists in a certain area. This is done with rigorous permit requirements to help protect marine life. In fact, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has seen no evidence of harm to marine animal populations from seismic surveys, and this is a process that has been happening for more than 80 years – of course today with much better technology.

If potential energy resources are identified following seismic surveys, and an oil and natural gas production company is interested in investing the millions of dollars needed to drill an exploratory well, it jumpstarts another very extensive and rigorous permitting process that requires companies to adhere to many federal statutes and regulations from government agencies.

The economic impact studies on offshore development estimate creating 56,000 jobs in Florida and up to $4.5 billion per year to our state economy. Many of those jobs are in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields and pay much higher than the national average – the average salary for someone working in the oil and natural gas industry is more than $100,000. Floridians deserve those opportunities.

Local businesses benefit from low energy costs and additional job creation. One example during the luncheon was brought up from a small business owner of a clothing boutique. How would they benefit? Well, more people employed within the community would increase the potential for people to shop there. Also, uniforms are needed for many working offshore and this business could supply those items to meet a new demand.

This is a topic with many conflicting views, and that is why education and conversation surrounding energy production, such as offshore exploration, are imperative. In order to have a rational and productive debate about this topic, it is important for us to have all the facts, and to be willing to listen to both sides. Our recent luncheon event was a great learning opportunity, and we look forward to hosting similar discussions across the state. I encourage Floridians to join us and be part of the conversation.

It is important we remain open to the opportunities that may exist for safe offshore exploration in federal waters as it is an essential part of keeping Florida’s future bright.

Julio Fuentes, President and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Smokable medical marijuana gets legislative approval

medical marijuana
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In their first full action of the 2019 legislative session, Florida lawmakers — many of them grudgingly — ceded to a demand by Gov. Ron DeSantis and overwhelmingly approved a proposal doing away with the state’s ban on smokable medical marijuana.

DeSantis issued an ultimatum to the Legislature shortly after the Republican governor took office in January, threatening to drop the state’s appeal of a court decision that found the smoking ban ran afoul of a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

The House passed the proposal (SB 182) in a 101-11 vote Wednesday, sending the bill to the governor two days before a March 15 deadline he had set. The Senate passed the bill last week.

The Republican-controlled Legislature included the smoking ban in a 2017 law aimed at implementing the constitutional amendment, which was approved by more than 71 percent of Florida voters in 2016.

Despite DeSantis’ insistence that the ban be repealed, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican who sponsored the measure Wednesday and who was instrumental in crafting the 2017 law, noted that “many of us feel like we got it right” the first time.

“I’m not going to have all of your votes today, and I understand that and I respect that. My encouragement to you is to vote your conscience, but what I would say is this: This bill is important because if we do not pass this bill, then the guardrails that we could place around smokable medical marijuana will not exist,” Rodrigues said before Wednesday afternoon’s House vote.

DeSantis conveyed his thanks on Twitter to the Legislature “for taking action on medical marijuana and upholding the will of the voters.”

In the social media post, the governor gave a shout-out to House Speaker José Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano, as well as bill sponsors Rodrigues and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, “for their leadership and hard work on this difficult issue.”

The measure awaiting the governor’s signature would allow patients to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for smoking every 35 days, ban smoking of medical marijuana in public places and allow terminally ill children to smoke the treatment, but only if they have a second opinion from a pediatrician.

Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who has made a fortune in the cigar business, had balked at doing away with the marijuana-smoking ban. Supporters of the ban have argued, in part, that smoking is hazardous to people’s health.

But after DeSantis delivered the ultimatum, the House made a series of concessions to reach an accord with the Senate, which historically has taken a less-restrictive approach toward medical marijuana.

For example, a House proposal initially would have restricted medical marijuana dispensaries to selling pre-rolled cannabis cigarettes, along with other cannabis-based products not used for smoking.

Under the compromise passed by both chambers, dispensaries can sell any form of smokable marijuana, and patients can buy devices to smoke cannabis at state-licensed medical marijuana treatment centers or other retail outlets, such as head shops.

The Senate, meanwhile, yielded to the House by agreeing to limits on how much smokable cannabis patients could purchase at one time, as well as a cap on the total amount patients could have.

The proposal, which was quickly sent Wednesday to DeSantis, also requires the state university system’s Board of Governors to designate a university to house a “Consortium for Medical Marijuana Clinical Outcomes Research” and steers $1.5 million each year to fund the research, which would be based on data submitted by doctors.

Oliva, who voted in favor of the bill, told reporters he continues to have concerns about allowing patients to smoke their medicine, which he called “a difficult subject.”

“I don’t know, and we don’t have the data — hopefully we will in the coming years — to show if there truly are benefits to consuming this medicine in this fashion. I personally don’t believe that there probably is. And there might be some detrimental effects as a result of that, which is why I had reservations then, and I still have them now,” he said Wednesday.

But Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who once lobbied for the medical marijuana industry and who made medical cannabis the cornerstone of her election campaign last year, called the repeal “long past due.”

“Today’s action to finally allow smokable medical marijuana brings four words to the lips of people across our state: It’s about damn time,” Fried said in a statement. “I’m thankful for the House and Senate’s work to fix this situation and look forward to the governor signing this much-needed legislation into law. It’s long past due that the state of Florida honored the will of the people and allowed doctors to determine their patient’s course of treatment.”

Judge sides with charter schools in safety fight

school safety

In a decision that could have statewide implications, an administrative law judge Tuesday ruled that the Palm Beach County School Board is required to assign safety officers to charter schools under a law passed last year.

Judge John Van Laningham sided with Renaissance Charter School Inc., which operates six schools in Palm Beach County and wanted the School Board to provide “safe school” officers. The School Board refused, leading to the legal battle.

Van Laningham, in a 43-page order, pointed to a law passed after the February 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that included a requirement for safe-school officers.

“In sum, after a thorough study of the statute’s plain language, including a review of related statutes at the board’s request to determine whether some latent ambiguity exists, the undersigned concludes that (the law) clearly and unambiguously requires school boards and superintendents — not charter school operators — to ‘establish or assign’ SSOs (safe-school officers), with the assistance of local law enforcement agencies, to every public school within their respective jurisdictions, including charter schools,” Van Laningham wrote.

The judge indicated the ruling was the first of its kind, describing the dispute as a “first-impression question of statewide interest,” as schools and districts try to comply with the post-Parkland requirements.

Charter schools are public schools that often are operated by private entities. The dispute about safe-school officers comes amid broader clashes across the state about the interplay between school boards and charter schools.

The 2018 law required placing safe-school officers at all public schools. That can include using law-enforcement officers or “guardians,” who are trained school personnel allowed to carry guns. Palm Beach County does not use guardians, according to Van Laningham’s ruling.

Renaissance requested in March 2018 that the School Board provide a full-time safety officer at each of Renaissance’s charter schools, but the board denied the request. The board also later declined a request to mediate the issue, which ultimately led to the dispute going before Van Laningham, the ruling said.

“There is no dispute in this case that, under the safety act, one or more SSOs must be assigned to each charter school facility in the district, including RCS’s (Renaissance’s) six schools,” the judge wrote. “The question is, whose duty is it to assign SSOs to charter schools? The board’s answer, clearly expressed in word and deed, is this: It’s not our job; rather, the obligation falls to each charter school to arrange police protection for its own campus, as though each charter school were a school district unto itself.”

Van Laningham said he was not deciding issues such as who is required to pay for the officers.

“While disputes concerning this financial obligation might someday be ripe for adjudication, the narrower question of law … is, simply, who must satisfy the duty to ‘establish or assign’ SSOs at charter schools,” he wrote. “The plain and obvious answer to this pivotal question is: the district school board and district superintendent.”

DeSantis drug importation plan gets House support

Gov. Ron DeSantis was criticized last year for not having a health care platform while he campaigned for the state’s top job.

But DeSantis’ recent announcement that he wants the state to begin importing drugs from Canada is getting praise from Florida lawmakers.

Members of the House Health Quality Subcommittee on Tuesday voted 15-2 to approve a bill (HB 19) that would help carry out DeSantis’ plan.

“I just have to say, out loud, that I am stunned that this proposal is here. So thank you,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, told bill sponsor Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach. “I say that in a good way.”

The United States spends $3.5 trillion on health care, or $10,739 per person, each year. One-tenth of that, approximately $333.4 billion, is spent on retail prescription drugs, with 14 percent, or $46.7 billion, paid out-of- pocket by consumers.

A staff analysis of the House bill said the United States overall spends 30 percent to 190 percent more on prescription drugs than other developed countries and pays up to 174 percent more for the same prescription drugs.

Leek’s bill aims to lower those costs by establishing two drug importation programs. One program, for example, would allow the state to import drugs from Canada for Medicaid and prison health care. That part of the proposal is dubbed the Canadian Drug Importation Program and would be run by the state Agency for Health Care Administration.

The other program would be known as the International Drug Importation Program. It would be run by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation and would be available to individual residents.

Both programs would need approval from the federal government before they could be implemented.

But DeSantis, who was endorsed by President Donald Trump in the Republican primary, said he had spoken to the president personally and that Trump was “enthused” about the idea.

While he supports the bill, Smith worried that the proposal didn’t go far enough to ensure that the costs of drugs aren’t inflated before reaching consumers.

“I didn’t see anything clear on price controls and guaranteed outcomes,” Smith said to Leek. “What mechanisms are in the bill that would guarantee that the consumer is going to see price savings at the end of the day?”

Leek replied: “There are no price controls and no guarantees. What’s built into this bill that works is the free-market principle.”

Lobbyists filled the room Tuesday during debate on the proposal.

John Clark, a vice president and chief security officer for Pfizer, told lawmakers that the bill isn’t a panacea for lowering drug costs.

Clark, who worked for federal law enforcement for 28 years before joining the pharmaceutical giant, said the proposed programs could increase the amounts of counterfeit drugs that are coming into the country.

In 2008 there were 30 counterfeit versions of drugs that Pfizer manufactured. But with the proliferation of people ordering drugs off the internet, there are now 98 knock-off Pfizer drugs in the United States.

Clark told the committee that “tens of thousands of citizens are dying every day because of counterfeit drugs.” The general public, though, isn’t aware of the problem because of an assumption that people are dying from underlying diseases, not from the counterfeit drugs.

While Clark warned of counterfeit drugs, fraud and dying patients, Zephyrhills businessman Bill Hepshire told lawmakers the  bill would help people who cannot afford prescription drugs.

Hepshire, founder of the Zephyrhills-based Canadian Med Store, said that for 16 years he’s helped people who cannot afford the costs of their prescriptions obtain drugs from Canada.

“The people we typically help are senior citizens living on fixed incomes, small-business owners on high-deductible health plans and young parents who have children who suffer from serious allergies to peanuts or bee stings and require an EpiPen,” he said. “The one thing all of these people have in common is that they struggle every day to afford their life-saving medication.

DeSantis announced his drug importation plan last month at The Villages, a massive Central Florida retirement community. DeSantis was joined by House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who has made lowering health-care costs a top priority.

Within hours of DeSantis’ announcement, Leek had filed the bill for consideration during the 2019 legislative session.

But the bill faces a more uncertain future in the Senate.

While a companion measure (SB 1452) has been filed, Senate President Bill Galvano said he is worried the state is overstepping its authority with the proposed regulatory structure of the program for individual residents.

A Republican attorney from Bradenton, Galvano said Florida doesn’t have the authority to regulate the movement of medicine from state to state or from other countries to Florida because of interstate-commerce laws.  

“That is the province of the U.S. Congress,” he said.

Oliva, though, dismissed Galvano’s concerns.

Gas and oil in Gulf could boost Florida’s economy

Natural Gas and Oil

Jim NicholsonI’m proud to serve as a national co-chair for Explore Offshore, a coalition uniting more than 200 groups and individuals in support of domestic offshore energy development in the Atlantic and Gulf. Both areas should be retained in the final federal leasing program to strengthen America’s security and competitiveness around the world.

When the Trump administration included waters off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida in the draft version of its five-year offshore leasing program, it did so for good reasons.

The federal government estimates billions of untapped barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas lie in the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf and Eastern Gulf of Mexico – reserves critically important to U.S. global strength and energy security for decades to come. As we await release of the final offshore leasing program, members of the Explore Offshore coalition call on the administration to keep these strategically valuable reserves in the program.

Today, natural gas and oil provide 67 percent of the energy Americans use, and they’re projected to supply nearly 70 percent of our energy in 2040. Given the leading role natural gas and oil play in our modern society, the administration has an opportunity to strengthen America’s energy security while growing its status as a global energy superpower by increasing access to reserves in the Atlantic and the Gulf.

Expanded development also would be an immediate economic benefit to coastal states and their residents even before the first barrel went to market. Safe offshore exploration could support close to 150,000 new jobs along the Gulf Coast, spur direct local investment by the energy industry and generate $2.5 billion in state and local tax revenue in Florida over the next two decades that could be used to improve roads, schools and other important infrastructure projects.

In addition to boosting the economy, offshore development can help support environmental initiatives, such as coastal conservation. Florida could see $12.5 billion over 20 years cumulatively through a federal revenue sharing program similar to those already in place in other states. Under the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, federal offshore revenues shared with natural gas and oil producing states support coastal resiliency, conservation and restoration projects from natural disasters.

Members of the Explore Offshore coalition recognize the importance of operational safety and coastal environmental protection to Floridians. Offshore development is safer than ever. Industry has created or strengthened more than 100 offshore exploration and production standards since 2010 – focusing on environmental management, the latest in well design, safety measures and incident response protocols.

The industry is constantly improving offshore safety through technology, training, system redundancies and shared information. The Center for Offshore Safety was created in 2011 to enhance the offshore industry’s safety culture, collect instructive data and help individual operators set up safety management systems so that safe work practices and operational procedures may be implemented and maintained. The U.S. industry is a global leader in safety best practices and environmental stewardship.

Offshore development can safely coexist with other ocean uses in Florida, as it has in other places along the Gulf. Indeed, while the Gulf has produced on average more than a million barrels of oil per day since 1996, it also has supported a Gulf tourism industry valued at more than $200 billion a year. At the same time, we know from decades of experience working in the Gulf that offshore development can be planned and managed so that it doesn’t interfere with the needs of our military either.

Bringing the Atlantic Ocean and additional areas in the Gulf online for offshore development is part of a strategic, forward-thinking economic and energy security plan for our nation. Our military is the largest buyer of fuel in the country and often is called upon to access supplies and/or supply routes abroad.

The domestic energy revolution of the past decade has reduced our reliance on foreign imports of oil while also increasing America’s energy influence around the globe. U.S. crude oil production has added significantly to global supply, putting downward pressure on crude prices.

Meanwhile, surging domestic natural gas production has given the U.S. the opportunity to be a leading global supplier through the export of liquid natural gas to friends and allies, reducing the power of other suppliers who in the past have used energy as a political weapon. Expanding access to domestic offshore resources would help in both of those areas.

It is clear the administration continues to prioritize domestic energy development as a means to bolster economic strength and national security, and we applaud this priority. The program put forth in January of 2018 that included areas in the Atlantic and Eastern Gulf was a smart program that would open areas critical to our future as an energy and economic leader, while benefiting consumers in Florida and across the country.

‘Fracking’ ban advances with concerns from environmental groups


A move to ban “fracking” in Florida advanced Monday in the Senate with some oil-drilling protections for the Everglades, but not more comprehensive language sought by environmentalists. The Senate Agriculture Committee voted 3-2 along party lines to approve a measure (SPB 7064) by Chairman Ben Albritton that would meet Gov. Ron DeSantis’ call to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting large volumes of fluids into rock formations at a “high rate” of pressure to help release natural gas and oil. Sen. Doug Broxson, a Gulf Breeze Republican who voted for the proposal, expressed concern that the ban could impact the industry. Broxson noted that while the fracking technique has not been employed in the state, Florida has long had oil drilling in parts of the Panhandle and Southwest Florida. “Florida has very limited resources as far as what is in the ground,” Broxson said. “What we’ve done is safe and responsible. And let’s don’t do anything to interrupt what we’ve done right for the last 60 years.” While adamantly opposed to fracking, environmentalists have opposed Albritton’s bill because it doesn’t address a technique called “matrix acidizing.” The acidizing technique utilizes many of the same chemicals as used in hydraulic fracking, but it dissolves rocks with acid instead of fracturing them with pressurized liquid. Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, said by not prohibiting the acidizing technique, as well as hydraulic fracturing, the proposal continues to be a “risky proposition” for the state’s fragile ecosystem. “I don’t understand why we are taking chances, Oklahoma has, as we heard last week, has fracking going on and for the first time in their history they’ve got 2,000 earthquakes between the years 2015 and 2017,” Rader said. “I know there is a little bit of debate that it is due to fracking or not, but the majority of the debate believes that it is.” Before voting, the committee made a change proposed by Albritton, R-Wauchula, that would impose additional state Department of Environmental Protection reviews on oil exploration within the Everglades Protection Area, along with increasing permitting costs and penalties. Albritton’s amendment came after the 1st District Court of Appeal last month ruled that a Broward County landowner should receive a permit for exploratory drilling on about five acres of land in the Everglades. DeSantis’ administration, Broward County and the city of Miramar are asking for a rehearing in the appeals court. Albritton said his proposal wouldn’t prohibit the drilling permits. “At the end of the day, the courts have ruled that they can drill there, it really doesn’t leave us with very many options,” Albritton said. “My goal with this amendment was to provide for additional cost and safety measures, if they so choose to expand the drilling in that area.” Proposals to ban fracking have repeatedly emerged in recent years but have not passed. Groups such as the Florida Petroleum Council have opposed the proposals, contending that fracking is safe, can boost production and help hold down energy costs for consumers. But Albritton’s proposed ban gained traction this year after DeSantis in January released a list of environmental proposals that included opposition to hydraulic fracturing. Opponents of Albritton’s proposal, many of whom contend they will remain opposed to the current bill if it doesn’t address “all forms of fracking,” argue fracking threatens Florida’s already-stressed water supplies, can impact agricultural production and can cause environmental damage. David Cullen, a lobbyist for Sierra Club Florida, said even the Everglades amendment includes loopholes, noting a prohibition on access corridors and drilling pads through sensitive areas would continue to allow such uses when “reasonable and prudent alternatives are not available.” “In other words, we get to do whatever we want to do in the Everglades, one way or another,” Cullen said of oil companies. Albritton’s proposal is similar to a House bill (HB 7029) that has started moving forward. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, has proposed a bill (SB 314) that would ban hydraulic fracturing and matrix acidizing.

Sheriffs look at options amid DeSantis illegal immigration crackdown

Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing more Florida sheriffs to cooperate with the federal government to keep potentially deportable criminals behind bars until they’re handed off to immigration agents.

Following the governor’s lead, the state Senate is moving forward with a proposal that would require state and local law-enforcement agencies to “use best efforts to support the enforcement of federal immigration law.”

A Florida sheriff, who’s emerged as a national law-enforcement leader on immigration, is encouraging his county colleagues to adopt a newly hatched program that’s inexpensive, requires just hours of training and would satisfy the governor’s and Legislature’s goals.

The Senate measure (SB 168), which has become known as the sanctuary-city bill, is aimed at forcing local officials to honor requests from the federal government, known as “immigration detainers,” that ask law enforcement agencies to hold people believed to be “a removable alien under federal immigration law.”

The detainers, which have sparked legal challenges throughout the country, allow local officials to keep people for up to 48 hours after they would have otherwise been released. Critics maintain the detainers are unreliable and have resulted in the near-deportation of natural-born citizens.

Thirty-seven of the state’s 67 sheriffs currently have some sort of agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, that allows the local officials to keep locked up individuals who may be eligible for deportation until ICE agents can pick the people up or until they can be transported to federal immigration detention facilities.

Late last month, DeSantis, who campaigned on a hard-line immigration stance, urged the state’s sheriffs to join a handful of their colleagues participating in the “287(g) program,” named after a section in a federal immigration law, that allows them to train and authorize personnel to identify and process undocumented immigrants.

Civil rights and immigration advocates have widely criticized the 287(g) program, contending it can lead to racial profiling and dissuade immigrants from reporting crimes.

Authorities in Clay, Collier, Hernando and Pasco counties and the city of Jacksonville are participating in the program, which requires local law enforcement agents to complete two months of training from federal officials in South Carolina, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

Under the 287(g) program in Florida, local law enforcement agents are deputized to work as federal immigration officials, but the program is restricted to county jails.

Because of the extensive training involved, ICE does not have the resources to expand the 287(g) program statewide, said Gualtieri, who’s taken a lead role on immigration for the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Major County Sheriffs of America over the past few years.

“ICE does not have the capacity to expand the 287(g) program. They just don’t have the bandwidth to do it. They don’t have the money. They don’t have the resources. They can’t put the training on,” Gualtieri told The News Service of Florida in a recent telephone interview. “So, the 287(g) program is legal. It’s proper. It works. But there’s no capacity to do it.”

Gualtieri, a lawyer, is encouraging sheriffs to consider other, less burdensome options to bolster the state’s cooperation with ICE.

For example, under the newly hatched “Warrant Service Officer” initiative, deputies or county jail workers can get four hours of ICE training without ever leaving their own facilities, the sheriff said.

The program allows county employees to process the federal detainer warrants required for undocumented immigrants to be held for up to 48 hours.

Gualtieri said he expects the sheriffs’ association to roll out the warrant service officer initiative, already in use in a handful of areas, sometime this month.

“It’s painless. It’s lawful. And it facilitates keeping criminal illegals where they belong, and that is in custody,” he said. “In my opinion, there’s no reason for somebody not to do it.”

Gualtieri was also the architect of the “Basic Ordering Agreement” program launched early last year, in which 29 Florida counties now participate. Under the agreements, ICE pays the local governments $50 to house inmates for up to 48 hours.

According to a press release issued by ICE officials in January 2018, the basic ordering agreements “clarify that aliens held by these jurisdictions are held under the color of federal authority, thereby affording local law enforcement liability protection from potential litigation as a result of faithfully executing their public safety duties.”

The basic ordering agreement “has nothing, nothing to do with deputy sheriffs or police officers enforcing immigration law on the street,” Gualtieri said.

“It has nothing to do with asking for green cards. It has nothing to do with anything other than making sure that somebody who has already been arrested for a crime is not released into the community so they can wreak havoc and commit more crime,” Gualtieri said.

But in December, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others filed a federal lawsuit challenging Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsey’s use of a basic ordering agreement to detain a man who was born in Philadelphia.

The civil rights lawyers argue that immigration detainers are an unconstitutional violation of Fourteenth Amendment protections against unlawful searches and seizures.

While he wasn’t familiar with Gualtieri’s latest plan, ACLU lawyer Amien Kacou, one of the attorneys in the Monroe County case, told the News Service that, as with basic ordering agreements, nothing in federal law gives local law enforcement officials the authority to handle immigration warrants.

“They’re just pretending that the presence of that administrative warrant adds due process to the process, or that somehow it makes it more legit, which it does not,” Kacou said.

DeSantis’ push for more local law enforcement officials to partner with the federal government isn’t restricted to the 287(g) program, his office said when asked about the other initiatives.

“The governor encourages Florida sheriffs and local law enforcement to increase their coordination and cooperation with federal authorities through all programs available for the enforcement of immigration law,” his press office said in an email.

Immigration detainers can be requested for people who have been convicted of crimes, have served their sentences and are due to be released from prison or jail.

Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who does double duty as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and who is sponsoring the so-called sanctuary city ban, told the News Service on Monday that his bill is focused solely on undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes.

“Illegal aliens are already breaking the law, but I am not worried about that part. This is not an immigration fix, and it’s not about immigration policies. This is about criminal illegal aliens, people who are doing bad things in our communities. Listen, people who are doing violent crimes are more likely to commit crimes again,” said Gruters, whose proposal will be vetted by a key Senate committee Tuesday.

But the detainers can also be sought for individuals who have been charged with crimes, have paid bail or bond, but have never been convicted, or those who are being released from custody because the charges have been dropped.

The basic ordering agreements and the warrant service officer programs allow local law enforcement to do “the dirty work” of immigration agents, at local taxpayers’ expense, said Kacou.

“The dishonesty of this entire scheme, from the BOA to SB 168, includes this conflation of ‘criminals’ and undocumented immigrants, when the reality is that the function of a detainer is not limited to making sure that people who were convicted of a crime are essentially transferred to ICE,” he said.

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