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Lunsford Act Amendments Among Legislative Victories

Mon July 02, 2007 - Southeast Edition

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has signed into law amendments to the Jessica Lunsford Act of 2005, eliminating what some have called unnecessary provisions for contractors working at a school.

The spirit of the law, named for the 9-year-old who was abducted and murdered by John Couey, who had worked as a subcontracted brick mason at her Homosassa school, has always been widely embraced. However, its requirements for background checks have created a burden for contractors, some of whom have simply stopped working on school projects.

The biggest change to the act, said Bruce Kershner, executive vice president of the Underground Utility Contractors of Florida, requires school districts to accept criminal screening results from other districts in the state. Under the current law, contractors had to be screened by every district in which they worked, creating a financial burden.

The amendments also eased the language for contractors who will not have direct contact with children. In the past, someone convicted of any felony, such as driving under the influence, could be banned from a job on school grounds. With Crist’s signature, contractors working at a job site that is separated from school grounds by a 6-ft. chain link fence are exempt from criminal background checks. Exemptions will now be given to contractors working under the direct supervision of a school employee, such as someone coming in to fix a water fountain, and for workers making a brief visit, like concrete truck drivers.

Passage of the Lunsford Act amendments wasn’t the only victory for the industry.

Kershner said the Owner Controlled Insurance Program (OCIP) bill from three years ago also was amended. Under this program, public owners, such as counties or school districts, provide insurance on a job site rather than relying on the contractor’s insurance plan in a move some say saves money for the owner. However, Kershner said the industry has fought that concept, saying that no money is saved. He noted that the contractor has to carry its own insurance because that one job site is likely not the only place its employees are working. The program was restricted previously to projects that cost more than $75 million.

“We found that if an OCIP was to be successful on a project, it only happens on very large projects that might last a year or 18 months,” Kershner said.

However, public owners found a loophole and began bundling projects to reach the $75 million threshold — a move that was OK’d by the state attorney general.

The new amendments, which become effective Oct. 1, restrict owners from bundling unrelated projects.

“They can’t put these similar jobs together,” he said. “In fact, these projects have to be completed by the same prime contractor.”

In May, Crist limited the number of training hours on laws and rules required by the Department of Business and Professional Regulations and the Construction Industry Licensing Board. A few months ago, the board implemented a rule requiring that three hours of the 14 total hours be focused on laws and rules.

“We thought that was an overkill,” Kershner said.

The law now requires one hour of laws and rules training. One hour each of the following topics also are required: workers compensation, workplace safety, business practices, advanced building code and wind mitigation. The remaining hours are elective.

With these victories under the industry’s belt, Kershner is already looking toward the next legislative session. He said people should keep an eye on the Hometown Democracy amendment being promoted. It would require voter approval on all changes to land zoning. Kershner has heard reports of signature collector “outright lying” to get people to sign a petition.

“It is obviously meant to stop all growth,” he said. “Employers need to educate themselves and their employees about not signing these petitions.”

In order to get the amendment referendum on the ballot for the 2008 elections, proponents would need to collect 611,000 signatures by Feb. 1. In order for a constitutional amendment to be passed in Florida, 60 percent of the voters would have to support it.

Kershner said they have “a couple hundred thousand” signatures already. CEG

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