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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Bill easing fireworks rules moves forward

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would legalize consumer fireworks in Florida was unexpectedly pulled off a House committee agenda on Wednesday.

The reason? The bill’s sponsor — Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach — hadn’t returned from California after Monday night’s college football championship game because of weather-related flight cancellations and delays.

The bill (HB 4005) was temporarily postponed in the House Insurance and Banking subcommittee.

The good news for the bill’s backers is that the Senate Commerce and Tourism committee earlier in the day advanced a version of its bill (SB 314) by a vote of 7-4. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is the Senate sponsor.

The Senate changes include adding a provision prohibiting sales of fireworks and sparklers to children under the age of 16 and requiring buyers to sign a disclaimer saying they know fireworks are dangerous.

The measure as originally filed by Gaetz would repeal the prohibition on selling fireworks to the general public.

Amanda Neeld, Gaetz’s spokeswoman, said he requested the postponement because of his trouble returning to Florida. She said it was uncertain when Gaetz’s bill would be rescheduled for a hearing.

Roman candles, skyrockets and other explosive or projectile fireworks are against the law, but there’s an exemption allowing farms and fish hatcheries to use them to scare off birds.

In areas including Tampa, however, fireworks vendors have long skirted the prohibition by asking customers to sign waivers saying they are purchasing fireworks for agricultural purposes.

“This is the ‘we’re-done-lying bill,’” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, the committee’s chair. The Senate version also gives enforcement authority back to cities and counties.

“Local governments can make this stronger and decide … when it’s not a good time to be shooting off fireworks,” such as when there is a drought, Detert added.

Bills filed last session would have gone the other way and gotten rid of the exemption for farms and fish hatcheries. Those bills died in committee.

Among the current supporters are Arie Fry, a 15-year-old from Plant City, who began by singing the first bar of the Star Spangled Banner.

He and his family enjoy setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July, he said, though he knows it’s illegal.

“Our laws on fireworks do not seem to serve the needs of citizens or the farmers,” the teen told lawmakers. “Why should we keep a law on the books that everyone knows is a farce?”

But the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association continues to oppose any fireworks legalization.

“The (current) law is not a farce,” said association representative Wayne Watts. He cited reports showing that fireworks caused $32 million in property damage in the state from 2007-11.

“We don’t allow people to carry firearms in this state without proper training,” Watts said. Fireworks are “actually, in many ways, more dangerous than a firearm.”

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