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Local officials find lots not to like in bills being pushed

State interference on COVID among concerns

John Henderson


The state budget, education, redistricting, abortion and coronarvirus are expected to be among the many hot topics of debate in the Florida legislative session that begins Monday.

State Sen. Keith Perry has put himself at the center of the coronavirus debate at the session, which is scheduled to end on March 11.

He has reintroduced bills that would further restrict local governments and school districts from adopting coronavirus regulations, such as mandatory masking or vaccines.

In November, the Legislature passed laws that addresses these topics.

Alachua County officials have complained that this is tying their hands to protect public health in the wake of the recent omicron surge.

Perry, who was traveling out of the country on Friday and could not be reached for comment, has reintroduced Senate Bill 594 this session. It prohibits government entities from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination

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State Sen. Keith Perry walks in the door for an anti-vaccine mandate rally held at Clark Plantation in Newberry, Fla., on Sept. 13.


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for a person to receive a license or certification in Florida. His bill also prohibits employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccination, or proof of COVID-19 vaccination, or proof of post-infection recovery “as a condition of employment, promotion, or continued employment.”

Perry has also reintroduced another bill for this session, Senate Bill 592, which prohibits counties and municipalities from requiring any American citizen to wear a face covering in any circumstance.

Perry’s bills did not become law when he proposed them last year, and they were referred to committees in November, but the bills are in his 2022 hopper.

This week, Alachua County reimposed a masking requirement for county employees and members of the public going into county buildings.

Omicron is not causing nearly as many hospitalizations and deaths as delta, but is much more contagious, and has caused the absence of more than 30 county employees this week.

Alachua County spokesman Mark Sexton said Perry’s coronavirus bills weaken home-rule authority.

“They already took our ability away to mandate masking for businesses,” he said. “Traditionally, counties are the entity that take the lead when there is an emergency affecting local areas. This sounds like it is one more intent to take more authority from counties and cities.”

Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe also vented his frustration at Perry.

“Instead of using his immense power to help struggling families, address our housing crisis, or helping small businesses, he is actively taking steps to prolong this pandemic,” Poe said in a text message on Friday. “I simply do not understand his complete disregard for the lives of his constituents.”

Perry has filed other bills this session that do not relate to coronavirus.

They propose to:

h Make it a crime for person to picket or protest in front of a residence “with the intent to harass or disturb that person in his or her home.”

h Require the Department of Law Enforcement to expunge the arrest record of certain minors who successfully complete a diversion program for specified felony offenses.

h Provide grandparent rights in dependency proceedings.

Sexton said the county’s priority this session is to defeat a local bill proposed by Rep. Chuck Clemons that would radically change the makeup of the county commission.

Voting along party lines, local Republican legislators last month at Santa Fe College voted to support Clemons’ proposed local bill that calls for Alachua County voters deciding in November 2022 whether they support adding two county commissioners.

The proposal calls for five commissioners elected by district and the other two by voters countywide.

Sexton also said Friday that the county is hoping the Legislature this session provides funding for a central mental health receiving facility that would be an addition to Meridian Behavior Healthcare in Gainesville.

There, adults or children in a mental health or drug or alcohol crisis would be initially treated and then referred to other agencies in a coordinated care model. Currently those people might be taken to hospital emergency departments or to jail.

State Rep. Yvonne Hinson, who represents Alachua County, said she believes the coronavirus regulations will be discussed this session even though Gov. Ron DeSantis will steer clear of the issue as the Omicron cases soar in the state.

“I believe the ban on masks and vaccine mandates will be revisited,” Hinson said.

One of her bills calls for legalizing recreational marijuana for people 21 and older. Another one would prohibit universities from stopping professors from giving expert testimony in politically controversial cases – such as those professors at UF who initially were told by the university that they could not give testimony over a voting rights law that was supported by DeSantis.

Hinson said even though she is in the minority party as a Democrat, she is learning how to work with Republicans.

“I have built better relationships with the other side,” she said. “I kind of understand what their issues are, and where their sympathies lie.”

But she said she will only go so far in her diplomacy, and has filed a bill that revises state laws that are discriminatory to minority voters in elections that deal with with, among other things, requirements for voter registration and vote-by-mail ballots.

Hinson said she has also filed legislation that would pay a $2,000 stipend to highly effective teachers and retired teachers to coach teachers who are beginners and need guidance.

Clemons has submitted an appropriations request for more than $3.3 million for the University of Florida ISTREET program, which according to the Florida Department of Transportation “is designed to assist in implementing emerging technologies aimed at safety and mobility improvements.”

Clemons has also signed on to a fraud-prevention bill supported by the state’s CFO Jimmy Patronis, making it easier for people to cancel ongoing charges they have initially approved online or over the telephone.

He said some companies have made it so difficult to cancel a subscription it “nearly takes an act of Congress” to opt out.

Clemons said education funding will also be a big issue this session.

“It seems like we’re going to have to create 300,000 more career technical jobs between now and 2030, because we’re going to have 5 million new people here,” he said. “We don’t have the infrastructure necessarily to do that. The community colleges are poised to help that gap in skills.”

Clemons said he and Perry have sponsored a bill in which the state would fund vocational training for inmates a year and a half before their scheduled release, giving them technical skills they can use to get a high-paying job when they get out.

“You’ll come out with certificate saying you are trained in this skill, such as plumbing,” he said.

Arashi Yama Sushi & Hibachi Lounge has recently opened in Magnolia Parke in northwest Gainesville. BRAD MCCLENNY

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