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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Local activists, politicians and community members discuss prospective bills for Florida’s 2024 legislative session

The regular session will begin Jan. 9 and is slated to end March 8.

Just a few days into the new year, Nickolas Sanders assessed the stark political differences between upcoming Florida bills concerning similar topics.

“Just like everything, there’s two sides to the coin,” he said. “There are negative and positive attributes to either or.”

The 2024 Florida regular legislative session begins Jan. 9 with over 1,000 bills filed. The proposed legislation has sparked discussions on a wide range of issues including abortion access, firearm regulations, education reform, environmental protection, insurance rates and hurricane relief. 

The 60-day process is slated to end March 8. Local representatives, activists, students and Alachua County residents are concerned for the impact new legislation may have on their communities. 

Firearm regulation 

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 656 mass shootings nationally last year. Thirty took place in Florida. 

An increase in these incidents calls for the revision of current Florida gun laws, said Isaiah Sloan, a member of Students Demand Action, an organization dedicated to ending gun violence.

Activists like Sloan, a 19-year-old UF microbiology and political science freshman, have spoken out against recent legislation loosening gun regulations. 

One change was a measure proposed by House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, passed in April 2023 allowing legal concealed carry of firearms without a permit. It eliminated certain background check and gun safety training requirements.

The bill was passed just weeks after the fifth anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in 2018.

“I just felt like a slap in the face as a student,” Sloan said. “Easy access to guns is killing my generation left and right.”

For this legislative session, Rep. Joel Rudman, R-Navarre, proposed a new bill limiting the mandatory waiting period for a firearm purchase to three days, potentially allowing a gun to be acquired after that period even if the required background check is not fully completed prior. 

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Additionally, Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, filed a bill that will lower the minimum age for firearm purchase from 21 to 18 if enacted. 

Sanders, a Columbia County resident and former member of the U.S. Marine Corps, said shortening the allotted background check period to three days shouldn’t pose an issue as long as the process remains strict. An additional psychological evaluation before a firearm purchase would be beneficial, he said.

“I feel that as long as you are a well-rounded adult in today’s society who is doing it strictly for self-defense or sporting, it should not be a problem whether or not how strict the laws are,” Sanders said.

Education reform 

Multiple bills that transformed K-12 and higher education were signed into law by DeSantis in recent years.

The “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed in March 2022, limiting the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity as well as the use of preferred pronouns in K-12 public schools. The Curriculum Transparency Act passed in the same month, sparking bans on school library books deemed inappropriate. 

As a father of five children, Sanders said he supports limiting sexual discussion in K-12 schools, especially concerning elementary students. However, the recognition of sexual orientation should remain as long as it isn’t pushed on children, he said. 

“It was a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” he said, “Nowadays, it’s out in the open. Why are you trying to close that back down again?”

Signed into law last year, House Bill 999 enacted sweeping changes to Florida higher education. It restricts diversity, equity and inclusion program funding and prohibits degree programs including critical theory, a term referring to the dissection of systems of oppression and social movements.

Paulina Trujillo, the public relations director for UF College Democrats, worried about the future of her major as a 22-year-old UF women’s studies and political science senior. 

However, a 2024 bill proposed by Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, D-Gainesville, would work to re-expand DEI programs if approved. 

Such a measure could be a step in the right direction for students with disputed majors or in fear of joining advocacy groups on campus, Trujillo said. She also worries about legislation regulating student stances on foreign political issues. 

Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, proposed a bill that would allow for the assessment of out-of-state tuition to any student promoting a “foreign terrorist organization” and render them ineligible for financial aid and/or scholarships if enacted. 

In November 2023, DeSantis demanded the deactivation of Students for Justice in Palestine campus chapters out of concern that the group promoted Hamas, a terrorist organization involved in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. In response, a still-pending lawsuit was filed by UF SJP with the support of Palestine Legal and ACLU.

“I think this is just another facet for him to attack those organizations,” Trujillo said. 

Abortion access

Florida abortion access is dependent on an ongoing legal challenge against the current 15-week ban. If upheld, a six-week ban approved by DeSantis last year will take effect. 

In response to these bans, Floridians Protecting Freedom, backed by organizations including the ACLU of Florida and Planned Parenthood, aims to slot abortion access on the 2024 ballot.

The effort began after the 2023 legislative session concluded in May, collecting the required total of 900,000 verified petitions in less than a year.

If approved by 60% of state voters, it would affirm a Florida Constitutional amendment prohibiting government interference in abortion care before viability, said Progress Florida Senior Communications Specialist Cheyenne Drews. 

Conversely, a bill proposed by Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, could allow individuals to bring wrongful death lawsuits against health care providers offering abortion if enacted.

“No one should have to fear criminalization for their pregnancy outcome or supporting somebody else through assessing an abortion,” Drews said.  

A proposal cosponsored by Hinson specifies penalties for a breach of current Florida abortion laws don’t apply to the pregnant person terminating the pregnancy. The provision will be discussed during the upcoming regular session. 

This bill is a necessary clarification of the limitations of the current statute, Drews said.

Environmental conservation 

On the forefront of spring conservation is Florida Springs Council Executive Director Ryan Smart. He said Florida is going down the wrong path.

The Suwannee River Water Management District Governing Board renewed a permit in December 2023 allowing an average of 984,000 gallons of water to be pumped per day from Ginnie Springs and bottled by a facility owned by BlueTriton Brands.

“We have rivers like the Santa Fe that are already experiencing significant harm due to over-pumping,” Smart said.

Passed in 2020, the Clean Waterways Act requires inspections every two years of agricultural producers committed to best management practices, which are measures taken to reduce the application of fertilizers and other pollutants on farmland. 

The law also implemented the use of nutrient-reducing septic systems. However, construction projects like septic tank removal and wastewater treatment facility upgrades aren’t an effective allocation of funds, Smart said.

“The problem with those projects is that they’re hugely inefficient,” he said.

According to the Florida Springs Council, 17% of nitrates entering 26 Outstanding Florida Springs originate from septic tanks and wastewater treatment. On the other hand, 70.3% results from agricultural runoff. 

Until the focus is shifted to enforcing inspections of best management practices and reducing pollution, Smart said, springs linked to the Suwannee and Santa Fe Rivers will not recover. 

If enacted, a bill filed by Rep. Tobin Rogers Overdorf, R-Palm City, would deem the winning party of a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection or water management district entitled to receive full compensation of all costs and attorney fees from the losing party.

The threat of covering these costs would inhibit the ability of nonprofits, local governments and individual citizens to file legal challenges against the DEP, Smart said.

Insurance and natural disaster relief 

According to the Insurance Information Institute, property insurance rates were projected to increase by at least 40% in 2023. Two special sessions were held to address these skyrocketing premiums.

“We are in the middle of an insurance crisis in Florida,” Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, said.

At least four major hurricanes have made landfall in Florida since 2017. The resulting damage contributes to rising reinsurance costs, and insured Florida residents’ rates increase in response.

If enacted, a house memorial filed by Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, would establish a federal catastrophe reserve to spread risk and reduce insurance premiums in the event of a natural disaster.

Sanders, a Columbia County resident, said he would support an initiative setting aside money for emergencies since his insurance plan is primarily concerned with weather damage. However, he said, lowered costs don’t help as much when repairs take months at a time.

“If there is a relief program where we can expedite repairs and then just refund back to the insurance companies, I think that would definitely help with situations where you don’t have roofs fixed for six to eight months,” he said.

Election season

The upcoming legislative session is crucial for politicians at stake in the 2024 presidential election.

With DeSantis running for office, the Florida governor’s seat will be vacant following the session’s conclusion. Current representatives will be considered as possible candidates.

The two-year term for Florida House Speaker Paul Renner will come to a close in 2024. Clemons, who also serves as speaker pro tempore, Hinson and Rep. Chuck Brannan, R-Macclenny, each representing a portion of Alachua County, will also face the end of their respective terms along with Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. 

Contact Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp at rdigiacomo-rapp@alligator.org. Follow her on X @rylan_digirapp.

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Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp

Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp is a second-year journalism and environmental science major covering enterprise politics. She previously worked as a metro news assistant. Outside of the newsroom, you can usually find her haunting local music venues.


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