News from the Capitol: Policies and Power

 

SUBMITTED BY DYLAN PRYOR

As an interning political analyst and a member of the Florida Capitol’s Press Corps, I have been able to witness many of the legislature’s policymaking efforts as they happen. Here are a few highlights from the last two weeks of the spring session.

Lawmakers vote to resolve sexual assault kit backlog (March 2)

After a statewide audit found that there were more than 13,000 backlogged, untested sexual assault kits (SAKs), Florida lawmakers passed a bill that aims to clear the current backlog and ensure all incoming kits will now be tested under more strict deadlines.

“Our bill is very specific in the amount of time that can elapse before the kits are tested,” said bill sponsor Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Ft. Myers. “They have to be submitted within 30 days, and then tested within 120, so that will bring swift resolution to the collection and testing of evidence.”

The bill (SB 636) also includes a plan to resolve the backlog of kits originally agreed upon by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and leading supporter of the bill, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, in January. Although initially opposed to outsourcing, Negron conceded that it would be preferable to a projected timeframe of eight years for exclusively testing the kits at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

The plan entails outsourcing more than 2,800 kits annually to clear the backlog within three years, and would cost $8.1 million as opposed to the $32 million that would be spent on the eight-year plan.

“There’s a tension between two values: one is timeliness and one is doing them through the FDLE,” Negron said after the agreement. “I think eight years is an unacceptable timeframe to finish testing the backlog, and so we may have to do a combination.”

Lawmakers have agreed to $2.3 million more in funding in the new state budget for the current backlog reduction plan.

“That’s in addition to the base funding, so that will be a very significant amount of money and it will allow for the backlog to be cleared in a much shorter timeframe than had originally been anticipated,” Sen. Benacquisto said.

Benacquisto also cited Negron and budget chairman Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, as major forces in obtaining the funding and potentially speeding up the process.

“We want to make sure that sexual assault kits that are arriving at FDLE from current cases are also timely tested so I think the plan that we’ve developed is fully funded and addresses the issue one-hundred percent,” Negron said. “If we need to make any adjustments, we will, but I think the number that we have is good.”

However, Bondi maintains that the funding is only the necessary first step in the process.

“We have to look long range, we’ve got to pay our analysts more money down the road, we’ve got to stay competitive with Georgia and Alabama because they’re just going to go right over the border – this is extensive training, we’re investing a fortune in our states and training these analysts, and we’ve got to pay them competitive prices to keep them with us,” Bondi said. “And we have to build a lab to have the machines and equipment to test them, so that’s the end game down the road.”

Additional provisions of the measure require any DNA evidence collected in a sexual assault investigation to be retained in a secure and environmentally safe manner, and for victims to be notified of their right to demand testing by a medical examiner or law enforcement agency.

In a January meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Sen. Benacquisto said approval of the bill sends “a very strong message to victims that the evidence that will bring their victimizers to justice matters, and that we will take care of it in a timely fashion.

“We’ll see to it that they know we’re on their side.”

The House voted 114-0 in favor of the bill (SB 636) on March 2, following the Senate’s 36-0 vote the week before.

If approved by Gov. Rick Scott, the bill takes effect July 1.

Some information taken from my original article for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune at politics.heraldtribune.com.

Lawmakers vote to revise Bright Futures requirements (March 4)

Florida lawmakers recently passed a bill that will modify requirements for the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program. The bill was sponsored by Representative H. Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake. Here is what to expect if the bill is backed by Governor Scott:

  • The bill will create a new program as an alternative to the Florida Gold Seal Vocational Scholars award. According to staff analysts, “a student may qualify for the Florida Gold Seal CAPE (Career and Professional Education) Scholars award if he or she meets the general eligibility requirements for the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship program and earns a minimum of five postsecondary credits through CAPE industry certifications which articulate for college credit.” In certain instances, the new scholarship will also allow credit hours upon completion of a technical degree.

 

  • The bill also modifies the initial eligibility period for students who are unable to accept an award due to religious or service obligations, such as the Peace Corps, so they can defer the 2-year initial award period and the 5-year renewal period until the obligation is completed. The organization sponsoring the obligation must be a federal government service organization or a non-profit.

 

  • In terms of Bright Futures’ community service requirement, the bill clarifies that students cannot receive compensation for volunteering, while also expanding service possibilities to include civic or professional areas of interest, as well as political service in the government.

 

  • The bill also calls for $66,468 in additional funds from the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund for the next fiscal year to fund the increase in home school students eligible for Bright Futures. Under the Florida Medallion Scholarship program, test score requirements for home-schooled students without a college-level curriculum will be lowered from 1220 to 1170 on the SAT, and from 27 to 26 on the ACT.

The bill passed the House with a unanimous vote of 116, and the Senate on March 4 with a unanimous vote of 38.

If approved by Gov. Rick Scott, the bill will take effect immediately.

Some information taken from my original article for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune at politics.heraldtribune.com.

UPDATE: Compromise on Florida death penalty bill leaves Senate Democrats wanting more (March 3)

The Supreme Court declared Florida’s current method of death sentencing unconstitutional in January, leaving the legislature divided over how many jury votes should be required for a sentence. Last week, lawmakers found a compromise.

While the Senate’s version of a death penalty bill called for a unanimous jury decision, the House’s called for a simple majority of nine to three to issue the death penalty. Both houses agreed over the importance of the bill in strengthening the death penalty system and satisfying the Court.

Ultimately, both houses agreed on the House’s version, and the required jury vote was raised to 10 as a compromise. However, Senate Democrats were left unsatisfied with what they perceived as a missed opportunity.

“This is a step in the right direction, I would prefer a unanimous jury verdict but you can’t always get what you want when you want it,” said Florida Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. “And I’m sure that when this issue gets back up before the Supreme Court, we will come around to where we really ought to be and that’s a unanimous jury verdict.”

The House voted 93 to 20 in favor of the bill on Feb. 18, while the Senate passed it through to be signed by officers and presented to Gov. Rick Scott on March 3.

“I’m glad to see that the U.S. Supreme Court has finally come down through Hurst to say that the jury needs to make this ultimate decision, not the judges,” said Sen. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee. “And even though I’d rather it be a unanimous jury rather than 10-2, I’m glad that this bill will make us now finally not the outlier in the death penalty that will finally require at least 10 jurors in order to level the ultimate penalty and sanction in our criminal justice system.

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