Legislative Session Preview: Tina Polsky prioritizes mental health care, voting rights, baby screenings

In Boca Raton Sen. Tina Polsky’s ambitious slate of bills for the coming 2024 Legislative Session, there’s no shortage of variety, from protections for public employees who use medical marijuana to easing property insurance claim resolutions.

But of all the measures she’s carried into the New Year, three aimed at shoring up Florida’s shortage of mental health care specialists, providing clarity to re-enfranchised voters and expanding neonatal screenings take precedence.

The first measure (SB 164) is Polsky’s No. 1 priority. It would simply add people seeking mental health counseling degrees to the Florida Reimbursement Assistance for Medical Education (FRAME) Program, a state scholarship initiative that currently benefits doctors, physician assistants and nurses.

Florida needs more than 500 mental health professionals to alleviate shortages in mental health services across 32 counties, according to 2022 a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of U.S. Health Resource and Services Administration data.

SB 164 and its identical House companion (HB 147) by Dania Beach Democratic Rep. Hillary Cassel would help do that, Polsky said.

There’s good news. Much of SB 164’s provisions have been included in the “Live Healthy” package Senate President Kathleen Passidomo announced in early June.

Another bill (SB 904) that Polsky developed with the League of Women Voters would help eliminate confusion and fear many ex-felons in the state may now have about reentering Florida’s voter rolls.

More than 65% of Florida voters approved Amendment 4 in 2018 to enable people with prior felony convictions to vote again after the completion of their sentence, including parole and probation.

Despite the broad support the change received, the Republican-controlled Legislature enacted a law (SB 7066) in 2019 that added obstacles to re-enfranchisement, including requiring former felons to pay all fines and fees related to their sentences.

State voting rights groups have since sued Gov. Ron DeSantis and several state officials for failing to fully enact the amendment.

“When they were defending their legislation in court, they said, ‘Well, we can just tell people if they’re eligible.’ But we know what happened was that all these folks got their voter registration cards and still got arrested for voting,” Polsky said, referring to the national headline-catching arrest in 2022 of 20 ex-felons who tried voting.

SB 904 would require the Division of Elections to provide an advisory opinion within 90 days to ex-felons who want to know whether they are again eligible to cast a ballot. If they receive no answer within that time frame, the measure says, the person requesting information can register to vote, vote and not be subject to criminal penalties, “notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary.”

Polsky also filed SB 168 as something of a sequel to legislation she got passed in 2022 to provide screenings for congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV) to newborns.

CMV is common and benign for most people, but it can be passed onto infants when there is an active infection at the time of pregnancy and cause hearing loss and developmental delay in babies.

The 2022 measure had a limitation, however; only newborns who failed a hearing test would be cleared for CMV screenings. Under SB 168, that provision would expand to all infants in the neonatal intensive care unit regardless of whether they failed an initial hearing test.

Polsky called SB 168 a big step forward, but still not enough.

“It would be great to have every baby tested,” she said. “But these things take time.”

Naples Republican Rep. Lauren Melo is carrying an identical companion (HB 499) to SB 168.

There are other bills on Polsky’s 2024 list that she is less optimistic about getting passed.

One is SB 912, which would address Glock switches — inexpensive aftermarket handgun attachments that can turn the popular semiautomatic pistols into fully automatic guns.

The attachments, which can be made with 3D printers, are already outlawed in the Sunshine State. But the penalty isn’t steep enough, Polsky said.

SB 912 would reclassify Glocks with automatic switches as machine guns, making their possession a second-degree felony punishable as a first offense with up to 15 years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

Another bill (SB 160) would protect same-sex marriage in Florida by simply repealing Section 741.212 of Florida Statutes, which says the state does not recognize same-sex marriage “for any purpose.”

The 2015 Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges preempts all state laws regarding same-sex marriage, which is now legal and legally recognized nationwide. However, the June 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade has many concerned that marriage equality may next be on the court’s proverbial chopping block.

Polsky said she’s run the legislation for “several years,” including during the 2023 Legislative Session with St. Petersburg Democratic Rep. Michele Rayner.

Sponsors of similar legislation since 2017 included Daphne Campbell, Anna Eskamani, Gary FarmerAdam Hattersley and Vic Torres, all Democrats.

For the 2024 Session, Miami Beach Republican Rep. Fabián Basabe filed a pair of related measures designed to call for a statewide referendum on the issue and, if voters demand it, codification of same-sex marriage protections in the Florida Constitution.

Despite the similar objectives of their bills, Polsky and Basabe are not yet collaborating.

The 2024 Legislative Session commences Jan. 9 and runs through March 8.

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.

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