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Legislative Roundup: broadband expansion, increased death benefits for active duty military on tap this week

Free internet lan modem image, public domain CC0 photo.
Free internet lan modem image, public domain CC0 photo.

Lawmakers are now in the third week of Florida’s 60-day legislative session. Rachel Witbracht is working at the Capitol as director of government relations for the University of West Florida and taking a few minutes to give WUWF an update on the session.

Sandra Averhart: Rachel, before we look ahead, let's look back briefly at one of the more significant bills that moved through last week.

Rachel Witbracht: HB1, which was the school choice bill, passed on the House floor. The Senate version, SB 202, also passed its last committee last week. So, this bill would allow any student, regardless of income, $8,000 in scholarships for purposes of school choice. It passed the House and we're looking to probably see it pass in the Senate sometime soon. And that would be a big impact on school choice here in the state of Florida.

Averhart: And as news stories have indicated, the House and Senate are still way apart in their proposed funding for HB 1. Let's look forward now one issue that's really big for our community, and that's HB 1221, broadband internet service providers.

Witbracht: Broadband has had a big resurgence, and there's been a lot of interest in broadband over the last couple of years in the legislature. So, they've expanded funding and expanded opportunities for underserved communities over the last couple of years. And then this year, this one would authorize Rural Electric Cooperatives to provide communication services for the purpose of expanding broadband internet service. This year, it was announced that, Florida received more than $247 million in federal funding to expand the infrastructure of broadband. And Governor DeSantis announced this program earlier this year in Santa Rosa County.

RELATED: Santa Rosa and Escambia among 41 Florida counties to receive broadband grants

Averhart: As a matter of fact, on February 2 in Milton, noting $3.2 million for Santa Rosa and Escambia, and $2.3 million alone in Santa Rosa. Let's move on now to HB 621. This is in relation to death benefits for active duty service members.

Witbracht: I think this one is especially pertinent to our area of the state, being that we have such a heavy concentration of military. So, currently in Florida law, if an active duty member is killed in the line of duty, but he is not performing his official duties, the death benefit is only $25,000.HB 621 would bring the death benefit up to $75,000, regardless of whether they died performing their official duties. This would provide surviving family members with the same death benefit no matter how it happened.

Averhart: And, of course, we have numerous military bases here, as you have noted. NAS Pensacola, Whiting Field, Eglin Air Force Base, just to name some of the larger facilities. Moving on now to SB 164 — controlled substance testing. Explain what this is.

Witbracht: Senator (Tina) Polsky out of southeast Florida. She's a Democrat in the Senate. She has proposed abill that is absolutely flying through committee. It is on its last committee hearing this week, and it would exclude narcotic drug testing products from the definition of drug paraphernalia. So it basically decriminalizes fentanyl test strips. In Florida, we have seen a big bump in our fentanyl deaths. According to the Pensacola News Journal, fentanyl deaths were up 48%. So we've seen a huge impact for fentanyl deaths in our area of the state. So, this would allow safe measures for testing narcotics that could help in the epidemic.

RELATED: Escambia County starting program to fight opioid overdose and addiction

The bill sponsor says that this is a great opportunity to save lives. And there were Republican senators in favor of this as well. Senator Ingoglia out of central Florida, a Republican, said that decriminalizing test strips is a necessary step because the opioid crisis isn't going away. And I think that's very true. And I think this also may combat a similar issue we're having in northwest Florida with our medical examiner's Office. Last year, late last year, the medical examiners in District One presented to the Escambia County legislative delegation saying that they are overworked and underfunded and they need a new central office because, in part, the opioid crisis and the deaths that we're experiencing. So, I think that if we are going to decriminalize fentanyl trusting strips, we may see a decrease in opioid deaths.

Averhart: Anything else on your mind today before we close?

Witbracht: Speaking in terms of the budget, this week the budget committees are going to be meeting to present their initial presentations of their budgets. So, the way that the Florida budget is broken down is it starts in a silo. You have higher education, or healthcare, or pre K through twelve education. They're all broken down into their own specific areas. The chairs of those committee are going to be presenting their priorities and we're going to start seeing the budget being rolled out here very soon.

For more state news, visit wuwf.org.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.
Rachel Witbracht serves as the Director of Government Relations at the University of West Florida. In this role, Rachel manages local, state and federal relationships, tracks and analyzes public policy and budgetary events, and acts as the university’s chief lobbyist. During her time at the university, she has fostered key associations with local and state actors that heighten UWF’s presence in Northwest Florida and the State of Florida as a whole.