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Florida Republicans Move to Limit Felon Voting Rights in New Bill

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  • The Florida House of Representatives advanced a bill on Tuesday that would limit the number of former felons whose voting rights were restored under Amendment 4.
  • The bill more strictly defines what kind of former felons can vote and requires them to pay all court costs before their voting rights can be restored.
  • Critics have called the bill a “poll tax,” and said it disproportionately affects poor people and people of color.

Amendment 4

Florida Republicans are facing backlash after a Florida House committee advanced a bill on Tuesday that would limit the number of former felons whose voting rights were restored under Amendment 4.

Amendment 4 was a historic referendum on the Florida ballot during the last midterm elections that was overwhelmingly passed by voters with nearly 65% of the vote.

Source: Ballotpedia

Prior to the amendment, Florida automatically prohibited all former felons from voting. In contrast, Amendment 4 automatically restored voting rights to felons who have completed the terms of their sentences, including jail time, probation, parole, and paying fines or restitution.

It is also important to note that the amendment does not apply to those who had murder or felony sex convictions.

Overall, the amendment was expected to restore voting rights to nearly 1.4 million former felons.

Amendment 4 was added to Florida’s constitution on Jan. 8, and many former felons have already registered to vote.

However, the amendment quickly received challenges from the state’s new Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. DeSantis said Florida lawmakers needed to outline guidance for evaluating voter eligibility, specifically so sex offenders do not “fall through the cracks.”

Bill Passes Committee

The bill passed in the Florida House committee on Tuesday essentially picks up where DeSantis left off. If enacted, the bill would limit the voting rights of felons in two key ways.

First, the bill defines what crimes would prevent someone from having their voting rights restored.

Specifically, it disqualifies anyone convicted of felonies with any kind of sexual component from having their rights restored. This includes having an adult entertainment store too close to a school, and certain prostitution crimes.

Second, the bill requires former felons to pay all court costs and fees before their sentence can be considered “complete,” even if those fees were not ordered by a judge as part of the person’s sentence.

Huge Backlash

Almost immediately the bill garnered significant backlash.

Critics of the bill said it targets lower-income citizens and goes against the will of Florida voters, who overwhelmingly passed the amendment back in November.

“What the barriers proposed in this bill do is nearly guarantee that people will miss election after election …because they cannot afford to pay financial obligations,” said Julie Ebenstein, a voting rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, “It’s an affront to the Florida voters.”

Ebenstein also said the financial obligations in the bill disproportionately affects two main groups: low-income felons, and former felons who committed property crimes and were sentenced to pay large restitution and put on payment plans to do so.

According to annual reports from the Florida Clerks and Comptrollers, more than $1 billion in felony fines were issued between 2013 and 2018, and an average of only 19 percent of that money was paid back per year.

Source: Florida Clerks and Comptrollers

Ebenstein added that the bill requires the victim or organization to whom the ex-felon owes fees to “consent” to the felons voting rights being restored, even if a court waives the repayment of fees in the first place.

Desmond Meade, a former felon who helped lead the initiative to get Amendment 4 on the ballot, said he and his organization Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) oppose the measure.

FRRC also started a petition to protect Amendment 4.

Some, including FRRC, have called the bill “unconstitutional overreach.” Other’s also compared the bill to a poll tax.

Florida State Rep. Adam Hattersley, who is a member of the committee that approved the bill, hit on both these points in a statement, saying: “It’s not only targeting the poor and is targeting minorities, but it’s blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax […] The will of the voters is clear, and this bill is trying to circumvent that.”

The idea that the measure is functionally a poll tax was also evoked by politicians outside of Florida. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also referred to the bill as “A poll tax by any other name” in a tweet.

State Rep. James Grant who was one of the main architects of the bill disputed the claim and rebuked Rep. Hattersley, saying:

“To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was […] All we’re doing is following statute. All we’re doing is following the testimony of what was presented before the Florida Supreme Court explicitly acknowledging that fines and court costs are part of a sentence.”

Rep. Grant also defended the more strict definition of “felony sex,” saying: “There is absolutely zero significance to the term ‘felony sex,’ […] Had the language said ‘sex offender,’ that would have meant something.”

Implications for 2020

With all this back and forth, many are wondering what happens next.

The current version of the bill has been approved by a House committee, which is the first step in moving the bill to a vote on the House floor.

Following the bill’s approval in the House committee, Politico reported that the president of Florida’s state Senate “said he expects his chamber to draw up a companion measure.”

Politico also reported that Gov. DeSantis said Tuesday that he had not yet seen the wording of the measure, but supported having the Florida Legislature outline how the amendment should be implemented, stating: “Do you want the executive branch to just unilaterally, by fiat, make these decisions […] or do you want it to be in a public debate?”

Both Florida’s House and Senate have Republican majorities and DeSantis is a Republican, giving the state a powerful trifecta. That means if the state House and Senate can agree on a bill, it seems likely that DeSantis will sign it.

With this bill, the voting rights of more than a million Floridians at stake. However, there are also broader implications beyond Florida that could possibly impact the U.S. presidency.

Florida is a key battleground state in the 2020 presidential race.

Voters backed both Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections. In the last midterm elections, the races for U.S. Senate and Governor of Florida were so close that both forced automatic recounts.

Republican-controlled state legislatures have been criticized since the midterm elections for attempts to change or undo election results where Democrats or progressive causes triumphed.

For example, Republican lawmakers tried to pass legislation to limit the powers of incoming Democratic governors in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, criticized the actions in Florida, saying: “Today, we saw the beginning of the politicization of Amendment 4 […] We think we can do better than that.”

Whether or not the bill is simply a political ploy is unclear, but regardless it would have significant implications for the state of Florida and beyond.

See what others are saying: (NBC) (Politico) (Miami Herald)

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What You Need to Know About Trump’s $300 Unemployment Benefit Plan

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  • After much confusion, the Department of Labor finally issued guidelines clarifying how President Trump’s executive action expanding unemployment benefits would be enacted and funded.
  • While Trump said that he would provide $400 a week in benefits, his plan only provides $300 in federal funds, and states would be required to cover the other $100. 
  • Under Trump’s original memo, if a state did not agree to chip in $100, it would not be able to access the additional benefits. After bipartisan backlash, his administration agreed to give states the $300 without requiring the extra payout.
  • But even after walking back that decision, there are still concerns as to whether states will opt-into the program because it has many legal and logistical problems.

Trump’s Unemployment Plan

The Department of Labor issued guidelines Wednesday for states to execute the $300 expansion of unemployment benefits President Donald Trump authorized in an executive memo Friday.

The move comes after days of confusion over the implementation and funding levels of the executive action.

In announcing the memo, Trump claimed that the move would give people an additional $400 a week on top of the benefits they receive at the state level. But there was a big catch: the federal government would only pay 75%, or $300, and states have to cover 25% by chipping in $100.

Under the initial plan Trump laid out, even just to get that $300 states would need to enter into a financial agreement with the federal government that says they will give people the $100 from their own funds.

However, many states have already tapped out their unemployment funds because of the millions of Americans who have filed for unemployment throughout the pandemic. 

Governors from both parties expressed concern over the idea that states would have to agree to payout more from their already depleted funds to access the federal benefits, and because Trump’s memo allowed states to opt-in to receive the extra $300 but did not require them to do so, many worried that states would opt-out.

In the days following the announcement, the Trump administration seemed to walk back the plan to make it mandatory for states to pay the extra $100 to get the $300 in federal benefits. However, between Trump’s announcement and Tuesday, administration officials also offered five different contradictory versions of how the benefits would work.

The new DOL directive clears that up. Under the new guidelines, the agency says that states can either chip in the $100 or count the first $100 they already pay in state-level benefits. 

While that does lower a significant barrier, it also means that unless states chipped in— and many would probably be unable to— their citizens would only get half of the $600 they had been receiving before.

Other Issues

Even without that barrier, there are still concerns that states will not want to opt-in to the extra $300 for a number of reasons.

States cannot legally use their existing unemployment systems to give out benefits that have not been authorized by Congress. As a result, Trump’s memo would require them to create and implement entirely new insurance disbursement programs from scratch to even be able to give out the benefits.

However, some states are struggling so much financially that they might not be able to do it at all, and even for the states that can financially implement new programs, experts have said that it could take weeks or even months for them to set up and implement those systems.

For many, that onerous and expensive process may not be worth it, especially because there are serious concerns about how Trump plans to fund the extra benefits.

In his memo, Trump calls for $44 billion of funding from the Department of Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund— which is normally used for national disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires— to be shifted to unemployment.

Not only would that be pulling from natural disaster funds in the middle of what is expected to be a major hurricane season, at the current rate of unemployment, experts say that money would run out in about five or six weeks.

Additionally, opting-in to Trump’s program could also pose a risk for states because of two major legal issues with his plan.

First, the emergency fund that Trump is using to bankroll the executive action is one that is set aside by Congress. But Congress, not the president, has the power to allocate federal funds under the Constitution, so there are legal questions as to whether Trump can unilaterally divert that money.

“The basic notion here is the president is rejecting Congress’ power of the purse,” David Super, a constitutional law expert at Georgetown Law told the Washington Post. “That is something nobody who cares about separation of powers can let slide, even if they like what the money is being spent on.”

The second issue, as Super also explained to The Post, is that it is actually illegal for the Trump administration to waive the additional state contributions of $100 as a requisite for receiving the $300. 

In fact, the 25% state funding match that was in Trump’s initial plan because it’s required under the law Trump cited to create this benefit program. What’s more, counting the first $100 states already payout in state-level benefits rather than requiring new spending to meet the state-match requirement also violates a federal rule outlined by the Office of Management and Budget.

Unemployment Claims Drop, But Indicators Worry Experts

The questionable legality and other underlying issues with Trump’s plan paired with the inability of Senate Democratic leaders and the White House to negotiate a coronavirus relief bill has left many worried about their livelihoods nearly two weeks after the $600 federal unemployment benefits expired.

On Thursday, the government reported that the number of people who filed for this week fell to under one million for the first time since March, with new unemployment claims clocking in at 963,000, down 228,000 from the week before.

While it is significant that new claims dipped after 20 consecutive weeks of being more than a million, like all good news during the pandemic, there is some nuance here.

First of all, the unemployment numbers that are reported every Thursday are not the full picture. They do not account for people who have exited the workforce entirely or independent contractors and self-employed workers who are not eligible for unemployment and are currently receiving benefits under a separate federal program.

This week, another 489,000 people applied for that program, and when those people are including the count, there are still over 1.4 million people who filed to receive some kind of unemployment benefits this week.

On top of that, while the 963,000 number on its own is the lowest count since the economic closures started, it is still incredibly high by historic measures. According to reports, before the pandemic, the previous worst week on record was in 1982 when 695,000 people filed for unemployment.

Additionally, while unemployment has been trending down in general, many of the claims filed earlier on in the pandemic were due to temporary layoffs and furloughs. Now, however, experts say that most of the new job losses that are being reported now are likely going to be permanent.

Last week, the DOL reported that employers brought back 1.8 million jobs in July, which is way down from the 4.8 million they brought back in June. With multiple enhanced benefits and protections provided under the CARES Act already expired, economists warn that the slowdown will continue through August.

See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (Forbes) (The New York Times

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At Least 2,000 Students and School Faculty Members Quarantined Across Five States

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  • At least 2,000 students and school staff across five states have had to quarantine as a result of 230 total COVID-19 cases in their school districts.
  • Cherokee County School District in Georgia alone has 1,100 people quarantining and 59 cases of the virus. The other states in this tally are Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Indiana.
  • The full total of students and school faculty quarantining is likely even higher, as other states, including Florida, also have student populations quarantining after going back to school.
  • It also comes as cases in children are on the rise. In the last month, the United States has seen a 90% increase in child cases. In Florida, the increase is even higher, with child cases going up 137% over the last month.

Students Quarantined

At least 2,000 students, teachers and faculty across five states are quarantining as a result of 230 total positive coronavirus cases confirmed in school districts. 

According to CNN, over 1,100 of those people are in the Cherokee County School District in Georgia. That district alone has recorded 59 COVID-19 cases after opening for in person instruction roughly two weeks ago. The other states counted in CNN’s tally are Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Indiana. 

The number of students and school staff quarantined nationwide is likely much higher. In Martin County, Florida a classroom of nine elementary school students has been quarantined after a student displayed COVID-19 symptoms on the second day of school.

This comes as coronavirus cases in children are up by 90% in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In some places, that increase is even higher. In Florida, the state’s Department of Health said cases in kids have gone up by 137% in the last month. 

Still, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been pushing for schools to reopen in his state. He made headlines Wednesday evening after he compared the importance and challenges of reopening schools to the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden. He said that the Superintendent of Martin County’s School District brought the analogy to him. 

“Martin County Superintendent Laurie Gaylord told me today that she viewed reopening her schools as a mission akin to a Navy SEAL operation,” DeSantis said during a briefing. “Just as the SEALs surmounted obstacles to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, so too would the Martin County School system find a way to provide parents with a meaningful choice of in-person instruction or continued distance learning.” 

Teachers Are Hesitant to Return to Class

On the other side of the aisle, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear is advising schools to follow his mandate that bars in-person instruction from taking palace before September 28, despite the itch from many to head back to class. 

“In my very core, I want us to get back to in-person instruction, but to ask our kids to go in with all our teachers and faculty at a time when it’s not safe, it’s something that we can’t ask of them, and I’m not willing to,” he said, according to local reports. 

Teachers are also among those hesitant to go back to school physically. A recent Fishbowl poll of over 5,000 teachers across the country found that 73% do not think their state should reopen for in-person instruction.

“I know as an educator of small children, it’s going to be very difficult to social distance,” one New Jersey teacher told CNN.

“Even if the kids kept on their mask and didn’t touch each other and stayed six feet apart… it’s little things like on the first day of school, children cry. A child will ask me to tie his or her shoes. My gut reaction is going to go near that child, to comfort that child, to help that child.”

See what others are saying: (TC Palm) (NBC News) (CBS News)

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Big Ten and Pac-12 Postpone College Football Seasons

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  • The Big Ten and Pac-12 have postponed their college football seasons due to the coronavirus, citing the health and safety of their players.
  • It is unclear if this will impact the decisions of other conferences in the Power Five, but so far, the others seem to intend to push forward with their seasons.
  • College athletes started a movement encouraging the conferences to let the seasons run under COVID-19 safety guidelines, giving players the chance to opt out if the wanted to.
  • Using the hashtag #WeWantToPay, many said they believed that they were safer playing football at school than they were in their hometowns.

Big Ten and Pac-12 Postpone Seasons

The Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences both announced that they would be postponing their college football seasons as the pandemic continues to put college life and athletics in question. 

Right now, other conferences in the Power Five have stated they plan on following their seasons as scheduled, following a multitude of coronavirus safety regulations. The Big Ten and Pac-12, however, still thought playing a season during this time was too high of a risk for their players. 

“The health, safety and well-being of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports has been our number one priority since the start of this current crisis,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement. “Our student-athletes, fans, staff and all those who love college sports would like to have seen the season played this calendar year as originally planned, and we know how disappointing this is.”

The Big Ten cited similar reasons. Commissioner Kevin Warren also discussed myocarditis, a rare heart condition that has been found in at least five Big Ten players, according to ESPN. The condition, which has been tied to COVID-19, causes an inflammation of the heart muscle that decreases the heart’s ability to pump blood normally. In some cases it can improve in a few weeks or months, but in others, it can cause permanent damage to the heart. 

Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of the University of Washington Medicine Center for Sports Cardiology, told ESPN that while most athletes will be able to return to their sport after a three to six month rest period, the inflammation can put them at risk for irregular heartbeat, which can lead to sudden cardiac arrest, which is triggered by exercise. 

“There has been a lot of discussion about myocarditis,” Warren said to the Big Ten Network. “Any time you’re talking about the heart of anyone, but especially a young person, you have to be concerned. We want to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can to keep our student-athletes safe.”

#WeWantToPlay Movement

Still, many, including a huge movement from student athletes, want football seasons across all conferences to push forward. While the players in conferences with postponed seasons will still retain their scholarships, their college football careers are still short, and missing any of it could have major implications for their careers and dreams of going pro. Many players are using the hashtag #WeWantToPlay to express their desire to hit the field this fall. 

“We NEED football, the country NEEDS football,” University of Oklahoma Quarterback Spencer Rattler wrote. “We understand the precautions we have to take every single day for this to happen and we are more than willing to do that.”

“I Came back to play ball! that’s what I want to do,” echoed Malik Herring, defensive lineman at the University of Georgia. 

Clemson Quarterback Trevor Lawrence tweeted a thread explaining that some athletes could be more at risk at their homes where social distancing is not enforced and medical care is limited or costly..

“Football is a safe haven for so many people,” he said. “We are more likely to get the virus in everyday life than playing football.”

Ohio State’s Justin Fields tweeted out a joint statement calling for a season to move on with health and safety procedures, a chance for players to opt out of the season, and communication with players and officials when it comes to these big choices. 

Coaches, politicians, and even President Donald Trump also stated their support for college football and its players.

What Comes Next?

Still, Big Ten and Pac-12 officials think spring will be a better time to hit the ground running. That is not stopping others from trying to get seasons going, though. Leaders at the University of Nebraska, a Big Ten school, released a statement suggesting that they might go on on their own. 

“We are very disappointed in the decision by the Big Ten Conference to postpone the fall football season, as we have been and continue to be ready to play,” they wrote.

“We continue to believe that the absolute safest place for our student athletes is within the rigorous safety protocols, testing procedures, and the structure provided by Husker Athletics,” the statement continued. “We will continue to consult with medical experts and evaluate the situation as it emerges. 

“We hope it may be possible for our student athletes to have the opportunity to compete,” they concluded. 

The logistics of this remain unclear, but they are not alone in calling for alternatives. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said he would welcome athletes from conferences that have postponed or canceled their seasons to play for schools in his state. 

See what others are saying: (ESPN) (Vox) (New York Times)

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