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Lunsford Act Updates Die in Florida House, Senate

Wed June 07, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Maybelle G. Cagle



By Maybelle G. Cagle

CEG CORRESPONDENT

Construction industry problems created by passage of the Jessica Lunsford Act (JLA) in Florida last year are continuing, because legislators can’t agree on how to fix its glitches.

Supporters of correcting problems in the law had anticipated the legislature would fix it in the 2006 legislative session. Both chambers passed bills to fix glitches, but the bills died, because they weren’t passed by both houses.

The original legislation required the state’s school districts to fingerprint and screen almost all contractors on school campuses, even if they don’t normally come into contact with children. It was created after a man charged with the bill’s namesake’s murder was revealed to have once worked as a construction worker at her school.

In Florida, the act has been blamed for shortages of construction workers.

For example, a roofing firm unable to hire enough workers backed out of two school jobs costing the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mark Wylie, president and chief executive officer of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. in Florida, said the House of Representatives, led by the original Jessica Lunsford Act sponsor, Republican Charlie Dean, are to be commended for developing “a plan that school districts and business owners could easily understand and implement effectively.

“There is no change to the current application by each county. Those applications range from zero tolerance [no criminal record whatsoever] to zero enforcement by the county or general contractor [there is no penalty in the statute for a school system’s failure to enforce the law],” Wylie said.

Wylie said 2006 is an election year and no special session is anticipated until December when the legislature will meet with its new members to form committees.

“Unless there is agreement by the House and Senate and governor, there will be no issues addressed at this session,” he added.

“If there is a special session, including the December meeting, the ABC will try to get another hearing for reforming this issue,” Wylie said.

Wylie proposed in the next session that, “we try to make 2005 JLA workable by making these changes: fingerprinting employees just one time every three years instead of every county, every general contractor, every employer. The state should issue a Florida School Construction Identification Card to the individual, like they do drivers licenses — kind of a journeyman’s card without the trade knowledge; eliminating fingerprinting for de minimis employment or job site access. Delivery drivers, service techs, etc., ought to be exempted, for instance, or at least given Web site clearance for temporary access and limit the disqualifying crimes to be potentially child-threatening and violent felonies or drug distribution convictions.”

Bruce Kershner, executive director of the Mid Florida Utilities and Transportation Contractors Association, said he was “extremely disappointed that the legislature failed to act on the glitch bill. We will have to wait another year for relief.”

Dean introduced H.B. 7117, which called for special drivers’ licenses and identification for convicted predators and stiff and easily enforceable penalties for employers who failed to follow the rules. The bill passed the House.

The Senate passed S.B. 2280, introduced by Nancy Argenziano, also a Republican.

“It did little to address the issues raised by construction contractors, school boards and arts groups and did not have the teeth to stop violations,” Wylie said of the Senate bill.

He added, “The strategy plain to everyone was to pass both bills then combine the best of each in a conference committee and pass it in both chambers.”

But Wylie said the Senate leadership did little to move the issue in a timely matter.

“Sen. Argenziano finally offer her bill for a vote and the upper chamber passed it shortly after noon on the day before the end of the 60-day legislative session,” he said.

“That was not last-minute enough for Sen. Argenziano, the sponsor of the original Jessica Lunsford Act. Apparently piqued with the Senate leadership and viewing the House bill with disdain, Sen. Argenziano held the bill until 11:30 p.m. on the 60th day, effectively killing it, rather than consider an opportunity to combine the best from both bills.”

Argenziano contends her bill would have solved the problems with the Jessica Lunsford Act.

She said the Senate bill would not have required background checks for construction workers who were fenced off from schools in a secure site or those under direct supervision of people who have been cleared.

Argenziano said the House bill didn’t go far enough because, “it wouldn’t require checks of state and national criminal databases.”

Instead, workers would be screened against a national sex offender database and their driver licenses checked for a marking indicating a registered sex offender. The new symbol would have been added to ID cards under both bills. CEG