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Florida bill would crack down on panhandling

TALLAHASSEE — Tampa City Council members have struggled to agree on a solution for the city's panhandling problem.

So Republican Sen. Jack Latvala has one for them — and the rest of the state.

Latvala, who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, is behind SB 1180, a sprawling Senate Transportation Committee bill that imposes blanket restrictions on roadside solicitations for the state.

His solution for getting it under control: requiring anyone who wants to accept money from the road to register with local government.

Latvala, the committee chairman, said it's his responsibility to improve road safety for panhandlers and motorists, and that dove-tails with his obligation to frustrated constituents.

"It's a starting point to fix what's completely broken," said Spencer Kass, president of South Tampa's Virginia Park Neighborhood Association, who has appealed to the city to ban panhandling.

Latvala's bill includes outright bans on aggressive and fraudulent panhandling. That should address panhandlers who follow people on sidewalks or yell at people who do not give money. Panhandlers would essentially be punished for false advertising.

"If you hold a sign saying you're homeless, you darn well better be homeless," Latvala said. "People are basically committing fraud on folks that contribute money to them under false pretenses."

The same goes for panhandlers claiming to be pregnant, deformed or veterans. Begging for money would be punishable within 20 feet of a bus stop, ATM or bank entrance. Also not allowed would be blocking the entrance of a building or car, or begging inside a government-owned parking garage.

Local governments would be tasked with setting up a permitting system for anyone who wants to solicit money from roads. That would go for newspaper hawkers, the poor, and firefighters raising money in fill-the-boot drives for charities.

It would require some paperwork and a safety lesson. And if applicants could prove they were destitute — how isn't spelled out — they could get a permit for free.

There's an important caveat for local governments: They could opt out of the state's crackdown with a majority vote.

Latvala said he does not want to interfere with more restrictive ordinances already in place, such as bans in St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County, or with municipalities that do not wish to take on the issue. But he doubts Tampa City Council members would vote to override rules he says constituents want.

"Once the mechanism is in place, I think they'll do it," he said. "They just need a little push."

Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, who had opposed previous attempts at partial panhandling ordinances, said Latvala's plan sounds like a friendly approach that won't put people out of their chosen line of work.

"I don't think the council will opt out of that," he said. "The council's been frustrated."

A previous permitting system worked well for Tampa, he said. But the permit system ended after federal district court ruled that a state law exempting certain charitable organizations from obtaining permits was unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.

Without permits, local governments had two choices for dealing with street vending, said City of Tampa Attorney Chip Fletcher. They could enforce a total ban, like St. Petersburg, or allow the practice with some limitations, like Tampa's requirement of reflective vests.

This year's transportation bill would eliminate the "all or nothing" approach, Fletcher said.

Violators would be cited for a pedestrian violation. An extra $10 fine would go to a state trust fund for homelessness initiatives. Gov. Rick Scott proposed eliminating this fund in his budget, but the Senate and House have restored the money in their plans.

Either way, shoring up a fund to help homeless people with money from potentially homeless panhandlers doesn't make much sense, said Rayme Nuckles, CEO of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.

"These people wouldn't be out panhandling if there were any other opportunities," he said.

The St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune opposed St. Petersburg's ban in June because it threatened their Sunday roadside sales programs. Latvala said he thinks the news organizations will find his bill more palatable because newspaper vendors could still work with a permit.

About 160 people sell copies of the St. Petersburg Times on Sunday in areas of Hillsborough not covered by its ban, said Craig Holley, the Times' director of consumer marketing. A total ban on street vending would hurt the program, as more than 8,000 copies are sold in the county from roadside sales each week.

"We prefer to keep things the way they are today," he said. "If that is not an option, permitting is a reasonable middle ground."

Still, people who really want to continue soliciting money from the road will comply with a bureaucratic stumbling block, be it the purchase of a $10 neon vest or a permit, Nuckles said.

"They're going to go about it any way possible," he said.

The bill needs two more committee votes before it can reach the Senate floor. The panhandling provision doesn't yet have a companion in the House.

Latvala said he is generally wary of government regulation, but that panhandling is a "lucrative" profession in which street corners are run like franchises and panhandlers can bank $70 or $80 an hour.

"I'm not ashamed at all of sponsoring a bill to help bring it under control," Latvala said. "At least there will be a way to monitor who's doing what."

Katie Sanders can be reached at ksanders@sptimes.com or (850)224-7263.

Florida bill would crack down on panhandling 04/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 11:48pm]
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