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Field grows for 2020 election

SEBRING — More names have found their way into the 2020 election roster for local, state and national offices.

The listing has some familiar names, either people running for reelection, have served the community in other capacities or have run for other offices.

Very few are completely new faces to politics or public service.

U.S. Congress, District 17

In 2018, Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) won the election for Congressional District 17, which covers Hardee, Desoto, Charlotte, Glades, Highlands and Okeechobee counties, along with portions of Polk, Lee and Sarasota counties.

Theodore A. Murray (D-Frostproof) has put in to challenge Steube this year.

State Attorney

Brian Haas is running for reelection as state attorney this year with no challengers for the 10th Judicial Circuit.

Public Defender

Howard Dimmig II, Republican, is running for reelection in the 10th Judicial Circuit as public defender, also unopposed.

Florida House District 55

District 55 will be open in 2020 since Rep. Cary Pigman (R-Avon Park) faces term limits.

The field currently includes Jonathan Ned Hancock (R-Avon Park) and Kaylee Alexis Tuck (R-Sebring), along with Tony Munnings Sr. (D-Lake Placid).

For a short while this fall, the field also included Nathan Bassage Nichols of Sebring, but Nichols soon decided to bow out, citing work and family obligations, on which he preferred to focus his time and attention.

Clerk of Courts

County Commissioner Don Elwell (R-Spring Lake), Road & Bridge Director Kyle Green (R-Sebring) and Assistant Clerk of Courts Jerome Kaszubowski (R-Sebring) are all still in the running for Clerk of the Courts, from which Rob Germaine plans to retire this fall.

Elwell has raised $3,332 in funds and $114.38 of in-kind contributions. He has spent $1,787 so far.

Green has raised $17,007 in funds and $7,492 of in-kind contributions. He’s spent $5,777.


Sheriff Paul Blackman is also up for reelection. He’s raised $18,500 in funds and $43 of in-kind contributions, but has spent nothing so far.

District 1

Carmelo E. Garcia (D-Sebring) has thrown his hat in for the Board of County Commission District 1 seat, to be vacated this year by James “Jim” Brooks.

Garcia will face Kevin Roberts (R-Sebring). While Garcia has raised $300 in funds, Roberts has raised $13,500 in funds and $546 of in-kind contributions, and has spent $1,213.

District 2

The seat Elwell will have to vacate as of election day, in order to run for Clerk of Courts, has four candidates, all Republicans: Mary L. Bengtson,

Shird Smith Moore II, Highlands County Republican Party Chair Kathleen G. “Kathy” Rapp and Highlands County Planning Supervisor Joedene Elizabeth Thayer.

Bengtson has raised $100 in funds. Moore has raised $760 in funds and $260 of In-kind donations, and has spent $43.54.

Rapp has raised $,2400 and has spent $362. Thayer has raised $1,200 and has spent $174.

District 3

William Ron Handley, Republican and currently county commissioner, has raised $500 toward his reelection campaign.

Bobbie Smith-Powell, Democrat, has filed to run against him, and has raised $100 toward the campaign.

District 5

R. Greg Harris and Vicki Pontius, both Republicans, are still the only two running for the county commission District 5 seat.

Harris has raised $1,095 and has spent $159. Pontius has raised $1,000 and has spent $229.

School Board

Currently, two members of the School Board of Highlands County have filed to run for reelection: Donna Howerton for District 2 and Janet Lee Shoop for District 3.

Howerton has raised $325 and has $120 of in-kind donations, and has spent $147. Shoop has raised $100 and has spent no money yet.

From coconut patties to environment, lawmakers ready for session

TALLAHASSEE — The 60-day Florida legislative session that begins Tuesday will have lawmakers considering everything from coconut patties to a state budget expected to exceed $90 billion.

Lawmakers are also expected to address abortion rights, private gun sales and environmental issues such as the rise in sea level.

While the budget is the only thing the Legislature is constitutionally required to pass each year, there are already about 3,000 bills filed, including about 1,600 that seek to stuff local projects into the budget.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared 2020 “the year of the teacher.” He’s proposing a $91.4 billion budget that includes $600 million to raise the minimum salary for teachers to $47,500 a year. It also includes $1 million to help eradicate pythons in the Everglades and elsewhere — just one of the environmental initiates he wants the Legislature to approve.

But the Legislature doesn’t have to follow the governor’s budget recommendations, and while House Speaker Jose Oliva has been diplomatic, he’s expressed some concern over the teacher pay proposal.

“My initial thought is one of gratitude for those who came before us and saw it fit to bind us and all future legislatures to a balanced budget,” Oliva said when DeSantis announced the proposal.

While several abortion bills have been filed on both sides of the debate, a bill requiring girls under 18 get their parents consent before having an abortion has a good chance of passing.

Sen. Kelli Stargel is sponsoring the legislation and draws from her own experience as a pregnant teenager.

“I thought for sure my mother would kill me when I told her that I was pregnant underage,” Stargel told her colleagues when presenting the bill. “She advised me to have an abortion. I chose not to have the abortion, but through that process, we are closer.”

Florida already has a law that requires that a girl’s parents be notified if she gets an abortion, but it doesn’t require parents give their permission for the procedure. The parental consent bill would allow girls to ask a judge for a waiver if they are victims of abuse or incest.

It’s one of several bills filed on both sides of the abortion issue, though most of the others are less likely to pass. There’s a House bill that would outlaw abortions if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat, but Senate President Bill Galvano said that would be tough to get through his chamber.

Even more unlikely to pass is a bill to ask voters to change the constitution to require at least 50 percent of the House and Senate be comprised of women before lawmakers can vote on an abortion bill.

Democratic Sen. Lauren Book said she sponsored the bill to serve as a talking point after the Alabama Senate sent a heartbeat bill to the governor with only two female senators voting on the legislation.

“Having to watch two women, whose backs were certainly against the wall in a chamber like that, having to speak up for millions of women who had no voice and no representation in that chamber,” Book said. “I started drafting it after that.”

The environment will also be a top issue. Lawmakers are considering legislation that addresses the algae blooms that have plagued Florida in recent years. Republicans are also backing bills to create the Statewide Office of Resiliency and the Statewide Sea-Level Rise Task Force. The Department of Environmental Protection would be directed to take action based on the task force’s recommendations.

Then there are hundreds of miscellaneous bills that won’t be among the most hotly debated, such as legislation that would ban “pet leasing,” which is essentially rent-to-own contracts some pet stores offer consumers.

Then there’s Book’s bill to designate coconut patties as the official state candy.

“This is very serious legislation,” Book said with a laugh. “I thought it would be fun and light, and people are very opinionated about it. Why not salt water taffy? Why not pink Starbursts? We feel strongly about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And I’m like, ‘Guys, but this is created in Florida.’”

Tougher gun laws could cause legislative divide

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories advancing the 2020 legislative session, which begins Tuesday.

TALLAHASSEE — Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. The Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. A Sebring bank. A yoga studio in Tallahassee. A naval air base in Pensacola.

At least 81 people have been killed in mass shootings scattered throughout Florida since 2016, and the death toll keeps rising from other gun violence that, in some pockets of the state, has become almost the norm.

As state lawmakers prepare for Tuesday’s start of the 60-day legislative session, Republicans are split on how — or even if — to address one of the nation’s most divisive political and policy issues: guns.

Two years ago, the Republican-dominated Legislature passed gun-control laws for the first time in decades. The hastily approved measures came just weeks after the horrific 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 students and faculty members dead and another 17 people injured.

Now, Senate President Bill Galvano, who played a major role in crafting the 2018 legislation, wants to go further and shut down what he and many other people consider loopholes in state laws regarding background checks and gun sales.

“There are myriad things in play, but the background checks are very much being looked at,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, told The News Service of Florida in a recent interview.

Galvano pointed to what is known as the “gun-show loophole,” which allows people who buy firearms to avoid the three-day waiting period and background check required when guns are purchased from federally licensed dealers.

“I think we need to really take a look at that,” he said.

The Senate also could consider “some modifications” to the “red flag law,” which was part of the legislation spurred by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

The law allows guns to be removed from people found to pose a threat to themselves or others. Under the statute, law enforcement officials can seize weapons after obtaining “risk protection” orders from judges.

Some states allow family members, school administrators or health care professionals to directly petition courts to remove guns from people who pose a threat.

According to the Office of the State Courts Administrator, Florida’s red-flag law has been used more than 2,400 times since it went into effect in mid-2018. Judges overwhelmingly have approved the requests, according to court filings.

But while Galvano might back enhancements to the red-flag law or other gun-control measures, the House is likely to thwart any efforts perceived as anti-gun, especially in an election year.

“I don’t think there’s very much enthusiasm on the house side,” state Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, said Friday.

“They (House members) are very pro-Second Amendment and they’re going to be very hostile towards gun control or gun restrictions because they know that gun control and gun restrictions aren’t the answer,” state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, told the News Service in a telephone interview.

Such restrictions “don’t actually decrease crime, anywhere,” he added.

Sabatini is sponsoring two controversial gun measures. The first would allow people to openly carry guns without concealed-weapons licenses. The second would allow individuals to bring guns onto college campuses.

“There’s no rational relationship” between gun violence and gun-control laws, Sabatini said, expressing an opinion shared by many of his House Republican colleagues.

“It’s what I call a red herring,” Sabatini, a lawyer, said.

Rep. Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican and attorney who specializes in Second Amendment law, said Florida, like other states, has plenty of statutes governing firearms.

“Most of the time when we pass new gun legislation, because there’s a ton of law already on the books, it ends up infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens,” Byrd told the News Service. “The criminals by definition are going to break the law anyway.”

Byrd, whose clients includes people fighting risk protection orders, said Florida’s red-flag law has “got problems.”

“It needs to be fixed. It does not need to be expanded,” he said. “It’s ruined people’s lives. People have lost jobs. I’m not saying we don’t need a mechanism in place, but the mechanism we have now needs to be improved.

Byrd also said expanding background checks for gun sales — which he said results in litigation that comprises the bulk of his work — isn’t the solution, either.

The background checks “are only as good as the data” in the state and national databases used to conduct the screenings, Byrd said.

“There are a lot of people that have to hire an attorney to get mistakes that are in the background system fixed,” he said. “It sounds good, but time after time after time in these shootings these are people that have passed the background check.”

“I’ve swore out an affidavit for a risk protection before,” Pigman said. “There was a person in the ER threatening to shoot everyone if we didn’t give them narcotics.”

Pigman said he was a big proponent of the gun control laws passed just after the Majory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in 2018. He said until then, he found some areas of gun control “sorely lacking.”

“As an emergency room physician, I was very amazed that we can hold someone for being a danger to themselves or others but we couldn’t restrict someone having a gun that was not in control of their faculties.”

Galvano’s not only facing resistance from the House.

Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association’s longtime Florida lobbyist, scoffed when asked if the gun-show loophole should be addressed.

“There is no gun show loophole. That term is nothing more than a stalking horse for imposing a myriad of gun-control measures that deny due process to law-abiding citizens for the convenience of government,” Hammer, a former national president of the NRA, said in a telephone interview. “The gun-show loophole term is used to apply to anything that people who hate guns want to do connected to background checks.”

Echoing Byrd, Hammer said officials are failing to enforce laws that are already on the books.

For example, she said it is a federal felony for people to sell a gun or give a gun to a person they know or reasonably should know is not eligible to purchase or possess a firearm.

“So any private citizen who sells a gun to a person they don’t know is an idiot,” Hammer said. “So the name of the game is enforce the laws you have. Quit passing more laws that won’t be enforced because they’re only put on the books for political eyewash or to deny law-abiding citizens their constitutional rights.”

Byrd suggested Florida lawmakers could consider addressing what he called “stranger-to-stranger” gun sales, but also stopped short of advocating for broader background checks.

“I caution people, be very, very careful when you sell your firearms,” he said.

Galvano, also an attorney, acknowledged that gun-related legislation “is a balance, legally, constitutionally, and frankly, politically.”

In Florida, disparaged as the “Gunshine State” by critics, passing measures that would restrict gun rights will be a heavy lift, conceded the Senate president, who is entering his final session at the podium.

“As a practical lawmaker who wants to have solutions and solve problems, I also am very much aware of what the political dynamics are and would rather pursue solutions that actually have a chance of becoming law and that can be applied, as opposed to just making political statements,” he said.

Highlands News-Sun Staff Writer Kim Leatherman contributed to this report.

AP Council to consider Nucor utility agreement

AVON PARK — The Avon Park City Council will consider approval of a utility service agreement with Nucor Steel Florida that includes impact fees totaling more than $270,000.

The agreement, which will be considered at today’s Council meeting, states that Nucor agrees to pay the city an impact fee identified in the City Code as a capacity fee. The fee is based on the estimated side of the water meter for the water fee and on the estimated flow of wastewater from Nucor to the City.

The contract states the estimations are based on information provided by Nucor and the City reserves the right to charge additional fees if the actual flows are higher.

According to the contract, Nucor agrees to pay the following fees:

• $40,812 — potable water capacity fee, 6 inch meter.

• $3,000 — potable water tap fee, 6 inch.

• $229,240 — domestic wastewater flows at 44,000 gallons per day.

• $325 — wastewater tap fee.

Concerning the wastewater flow fee, it is noted that the industrial wastewater fee will be dealt with in a separate agreement.

The council agenda also includes an item from Councilwoman Brenda Gray concerning a motion to instruct the interim city manager to contact the county about installing a traffic control signal and ADA crossing area at the intersection of Memorial Drive and Hal McRae Boulevard and to seek the cost of the project.

Council will consider one of three bids — $30,400 from Promise Technologies to replace the windows on the third-floor of City Hall.

The upstairs windows have holes in the frames, gaps between the glass and frame. The efficiency of these windows are poor at best, according to the agenda. Wasps, bees and lizards have been coning in those holes.

Also, Council will consider a rental agreement for FBO office space at the Avon Park Executive Airport with Dickerson Florida, Inc, of Fort Pierce. The company’s services includes civil construction for highway and aviation and environmental remediation.

The City Council meets at 6 p.m., today, in the Council Chambers, 123 E. Pine St.