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DeSantis Signs Bills On School Bus Safety, Bear Poaching

Continuing to gradually finish the work of this year’s legislative session, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday signed 21 bills, including measures aimed at improving school-bus safety and preventing bear poaching.

The school-bus safety bill (HB 37) will increase penalties for motorists who drive improperly when buses are stopped to load and unload children. In part, it would increase from $100 to $200 the minimum penalty for motorists who fail to stop for school buses and would double from $200 to $400 the minimum penalty for motorists who pass stopped school buses on the side where children enter and exit, according to a House staff analysis.

“This bill is a step in the right direction,” House sponsor Ardian Zika, R-Land O’ Lakes, said before the House approved the measure in February. “Today, we are sending a loud and clear message that the Florida House of Representatives stands by the safety of our children and our communities.”

But Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said he was “reluctantly” supporting the bill because he thought the proposed fines are too high.

“We’re fining someone up to $400 because they look away for a second, maybe because their kids are fighting in the backseat, and they don’t see that they’re passing a school bus that’s stopped,” Geller said during the February debate. “That’s just too high. It’s just too much money to be charging for what is likely to be an inadvertent mistake.”

Such arguments drew pushback from Rep. Emily Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat who co-sponsored the bill in the House. Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, sponsored the Senate version of the bill/

“I heard concern about the $400 cost being too expensive for violators,” Slosberg said. “Why should we care more about violator’s pocket than the value of our children’s lives?”

Another bill signed by DeSantis (HB 327) seeks to curb poaching of black bears, a practice that, at least in part, stems from the animals being killed for their gallbladders. Bear bile, secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, can bring in hundreds or thousands of dollars on the black market, where it is promoted as a cure for numerous ills.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. David Smith, R-Winter Springs, and Sen. Tom Wright, D-New Smyrna Beach, includes making it a first-degree misdemeanor to kill a bear or possess a freshly killed bear during a closed season, up from a second-degree misdemeanor. Also, the bill requires the forfeiture of any Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission licenses or permits for three years for a violation.

“People don’t come to visit or come to live in Florida because we have great strip malls. It’s our wildlife, it’s our waterways, it’s our green space that makes Florida Florida,” Smith said during a February discussion of the measure. “This bill goes to protect that.”

The bills were passed during the legislative session that ended in March but did not formally get sent to DeSantis until this month. He still needs to act on dozens of other bills from the session, including a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Among the other bills signed Saturday were:

--- A measure (SB 1344) that will help clear the way for building new “intermediate care” facilities for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

--- A measure (HB 971) that calls for regulating electric bicycles in the same manner as pedal-powered bicycles, instead of as motorized vehicles.

--- A measure (SB 1392) that will allow district court of appeal judges who live more than 50 miles from their courts to have “alternative headquarters.” It also would allow the judges to be reimbursed for travel between the locations.