Scott to sign bill putting statue of black educator in U.S. Capitol

Gov. Rick Scott plans to sign a bill that would lead to a statue of civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune replacing the likeness of a Confederate general as a representative of Florida in the U.S. Capitol.

The Florida House voted 111-1 on Tuesday to support placing the statue of Bethune in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, replacing Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, cast the only dissenting vote.

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

A short time after the vote, Scott’s office announced he intends the sign the measure into law.

Bethune, who would become the first African-American woman honored by a state in the national hall, founded what became Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and later worked as an adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt.

The Senate backed the proposal (SB 472) in a 37-0 vote on Jan. 31.

» RELATED: Know Your Candidates guide for March 13 municipal elections

Smith was born in St. Augustine but had few ties to the state as an adult. As commander of Confederate forces west of the Mississippi, Smith was considered the last general with a major field force to surrender. He has represented Florida in the National Statuary Hall since 1922.

Florida’s other representative in the hall is John Gorrie, widely considered the father of air conditioning. Each state is allowed two representatives. The bill requires the Smith statue to be acquired and displayed by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.

The Legislature voted in 2016 to replace the Smith statue during a nationwide backlash against Confederate symbols in the wake of the 2015 shooting deaths of nine African-American worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. But lawmakers couldn’t agree last year on who should replace Smith.

Exceptions for opioid limits proposed

People with cancer or terminal illnesses and certain trauma patients would be exempted from opioid-prescription limits being considered by Florida lawmakers, under a bill approved Wednesday by a House health-care panel.

The House Health & Human Services Committee unanimously approved the bill (HB 21), which would limit to three days opioid prescriptions for patients suffering from “acute pain.” Physicians could prescribe up to seven-day opioid supplies if they determine three days would be inadequate. And unlike an earlier version of the bill, the latest iteration includes exemptions from the limits for cancer patients, people who are terminally ill, those who are receiving palliative care, and trauma patients who meet certain criteria for severity of injuries.

Ban on college ‘free speech zones’ rejected

A bill that would ban “free-speech zones” on college campuses and allow state universities and colleges to be sued if students or others disrupt campus speakers was rejected Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The 6-4 vote against the measure (SB 1234), sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, likely spells the end to the legislation for the 2018 session. Baxley called it a defeat for “free speech.”

Under the legislation, public universities and colleges would be prohibited from establishing free-speech zones on their campuses. The bill also would prohibit students, faculty or staff from causing “a material and substantial disruption” of a previously scheduled event on campus. And it would allow universities and colleges to be sued for injunctive relief and reasonable court costs and attorney fees if students or others disrupt campus speakers or other public activities.

It was opposed by the student activists, the United Faculty of Florida and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Help for farmers advancing

Farmers and other parts of Florida’s agriculture industry could receive about $75 million in post-Hurricane Irma assistance from the state next year under a measure moving forward in the Senate.

The Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday unanimously backed a proposal (SB 1608) that would reduce property assessments on certain enclosed horticultural structures and offer tax refunds on materials used for construction of farm buildings and fences.

The measure is moving as the Senate continues to put together a tax package that will have to be negotiated with the House before the session ends March 9. The House’s $350 million tax package (HB 7087) includes tax refunds on building materials, fencing and gas for farmers. Also, it includes a fuel tax refund on agricultural transportation and a tax break on citrus processing facilities that have been idled by Irma or by the industry’s fight against citrus greening disease.

Besides the state relief, Congress this month approved a spending bill that includes $2.36 billion in federal assistance to the agriculture industry for losses from Hurricane Irma in Florida, Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Workers’ comp bill could aid immigrants

A Senate committee Tuesday narrowly approved a bill that would eliminate part of Florida law that allows employers to deny benefits to injured workers who use other people’s Social Security numbers or identification to obtain jobs.

Approved in a 6-4 vote by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, the bill (SB 1568) would eliminate a provision put into law in 2003 that made it felony insurance fraud for people to knowingly present false or misleading information about their identities for obtaining employment.

Bill sponsor Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, told the committee that the purpose of the bill is “to ensure that workers who are injured on the job, who were fulfilling their obligation, injured because of a dangerous workplace condition or something happened on the job, receive the benefits they are owed under the workers’ compensation system statute, regardless of what their immigration status might be.”

There is no House version of the bill, with less than three weeks left before the scheduled March 9 end of the legislative session.

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