Although several lawmakers said they were deeply troubled by the bill, the House budget committee Thursday unanimously approved legislation aimed at barring prosecutors from charging those who have low-grade marijuana for use in treating seizures.
The so-called Charlotte’s Web measure (CS/HB 843) is getting the blessing of Republican leaders in the Legislature, with many seeing it as potentially blunting a ballot measure in November that would legalize medical marijuana in Florida.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, a sponsor of the proposal, said parents of children with severe epilepsy have gained relief treating them with a liquid form of a marijuana strain rich in cannabidiol or CBD, effective in treating seizure disorders. The pot is low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound which produces a “high.”
The legislation also sets aside $1 million for research into cannibidiol and its effect on childhood epilepsy.
“There is no high, but it has had a remarkable effect on these children,” Gaetz told the committee. “We’ve got kids who are 6-, 7-, 8-years-old, who are no longer on feeding tubes…They are now able to ride their bikes, play on the streets, and tell their parents they love them for the first time.”
Some lawmakers, though, said they were willing to go along with the bill Thursday. But that they remained concerned about opening the door to broader marijuana use. Even the cultivation of non-euphoric pot, which the bill would authorize, could be a problem, they said.
“It’s a real challenge for law enforcement,” said Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota. “I don’t want to see bad actors who are going to…sell marijuana for purposes not in this bill.”
The Florida Supreme Court in a split decision ruled Monday that voters can decide this fall on whether to legalize medical marijuana, rejecting arguments from the state’s Republican leaders that the proposed ballot measure is unconstitutionally flawed.
The 4-3 ruling also has implications for the governor’s race this fall. Republican Gov. Rick Scott opposes allowing Floridians to obtain prescriptions for pot use while Democrats Charlie Crist and Nan Rich are supporting the proposed amendment.
Justices were asked to rule whether the proposed language of the citizens’ initiative meets constitutional standards. Opponents, who included most of the state’s Republican leadership, argued that the proposal involved more than one subject, confused voters, or made them think they are endorsing something they’re not.
Justices said the measure passed muster.
“We conclude that the proposed amendment has a logical and natural oneness of purpose—namely, whether Floridians want a provision in the state constitution authorizing the medical use of marijuana, as determined by a licensed Florida physician, under Florida law,” the court majority wrote.
Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James Perry ruled in favor of the amendment. Chief Justice Ricky Polston and Justices Charles Canady and Jorge Labarga wrote the measure should be struck from the ballot.
Twenty states and Washington, D.C., have legalized the use of marijuana for treatment of a variety of medical conditions, including cancer, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease and epilepsy.
Eleven of the states have enacted such laws through ballot measures, similar to that promoted in Florida by the organization, United for Care.
Florida voters will get a chance to steer as much as $10 billion toward environmental efforts over the next two decades through a ballot measure officially set Thursday for the November ballot.
The Water and Land Legacy campaign’s proposal was officially designated as Amendment 1 by Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
“We are pleased to be slated as Amendment 1 on the ballot because water and land conservation deserves to be a top priority for our state,” said Will Abberger, the campaign’s chair and director of conservation finance for The Trust for Public Land.
“Florida is home to one-of-a-kind natural waters and lands and voters now have an opportunity to make a commitment to conservation that will last for generations of Floridians to come.”
The campaign topped the 683,149 valid signatures from Florida registered voters to secure a place on the ballot. Another active ballot campaign aimed at asking voters to approve medical marijuana is near the valid number of signatures, with 654,330 on hand Thursday.
But organizers say that thousands more petition signatures still await certification by the Feb. 1 deadline.
The Water and Land effort faced no challenge before the Florida Supreme Court. But state Republican leaders are seeking to have the marijuana initiative barred from the ballot because they claim the proposed amendment misleads voters. Justices have not yet ruled.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who was Florida governor from 1979-87, helped launch the Water and Land campaign, which is backed by the Trust for Public Land, Audubon Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and others.
The amendment would earmark one-third of the state’s documentary stamp tax dollars, drawn from real-estate transactions, for conservation, management and restoration of Florida’s water and land for 20 years, beginning in July 2015.
The measure so far hasn’t drawn overt opposition. But the Florida Chamber of Commerce is warning the proposal ties the “hands of our elected representatives.”
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican, also has criticized the proposed amendment. Putnam, who is attempting to take a leading role in developing a statewide water policy, takes issue with the constitutional approach.
A half-dozen gay and lesbian couples backed by the Equality Florida Institute filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Miami looking to overturn the state’s 2008 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
The lawsuit contends that the state prohibition violates the U.S. Constitution by denying same-sex couples the same legal protections given heterosexual couples.
“These couples have been embraced by their families and communities, but every day, Florida laws are denying them the protections and dignity that every family deserves,” said Nadine Smith, chief executive officer of the Equality Florida Institute. “These harmful laws are outdated and out of step.”
The lawsuit has been brewing since last summer, when U.S. Supreme Court rulings struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and a same-sex prohibition in California. The rulings have clouded the future of same-sex marriage bans across the country. Utah and Oklahoma recently lifted marriage bans based on the high court ruling, although both actions are being appealed.
In Florida, a ballot proposal was floated earlier this year by an organization called Equal Marriage Florida. But it seems to have languished and the court challenge has been advanced by advocates as the swiftest way to overturn the law.
Democratic candidate for governor, Charlie Crist, wasted no time weighing in on the lawsuit.
“No one would want to be told they can’t marry the person they love,” Crist said. “It’s an issue of fairness and I’m proud to support it.”
Following last summer’s Supreme Court action, Gov. Rick Scott said that the 2008 same-sex marriage ban approved by 62 percent of voters remains “the law of the land.”
He added, ““Look, I’ve been married since I was 19. I believe in traditional marriage.”
The Florida Family Policy Council, which helped lead the ballot campaign that led to the 2008 statewide ban, said it would “vigorously defend” the law.
“Sixty two percent of Floridians have decisively spoken on this issue,” said FFPC President John Stemberger, citing the percent of Florida voters who backed the 2008 initiative. “Gay activists cannot win in the marketplace, so they have resorted to trying to find renegade courts who have little respect for the rule of law to create social change that would never happen through the people or their elected representatives.”
Petition gatherers are now taking the place of street corner Santas and bell-ringers as ballot proposals to legalize medical marijuana and boost environmental spending race toward a fast-approaching deadline.
United for Care, the marijuana initiative, and Florida’s Water and Land Legacy campaign, both have collected close to 1 million voter signatures.
But the campaigns are still working toward building a sizable cushion to clear the required level of 683,149 valid signatures needed by Feb. 1 to qualify for the November ballot.
“Even if a large percentage of what we have now are determined to be not valid for some reason, we’re confident we have what we need,” said Aliki Moncrief, field director for Florida’s Water and Land Legacy, which could set aside $10 billion over the next two decades for environmental efforts.
The Florida Supreme Court has already approved the campaign’s ballot language. Meeting the signature hurdle is likely to quickly shift the campaign toward another round of fund-raising and strategy aimed at November, Moncrief said.
The effort had 559,211 valid signatures through Friday, according to the state’s Division of Elections. But about 400,000 more signatures either have not yet been officially recorded by the state or still remain in the hands of county election supervisors, according to the campaign.
Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care, said signature gatherers for the marijuana proposal plan to wind down next week, comfortable that their total also will yield the state requirement.
Florida elections officials have recorded 210,961 valid signatures from United for Care, although plenty more are still being processed, Pollara said.
Supporters of the initiative, however, are keeping an eye on the Supreme Court, which last month heard contentious arguments over whether United for Care’s ballot language is constitutional, or, as opponents insist, is misleading to voters.
Much of Florida’s Republican leadership was joined by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the state’s medical association and law enforcement organizations in urging that justices bar the measure from the ballot.
The court has until April 1 to decide.
“We still think that the court will rule in our favor,” Pollara said. “But there’s nothing we can do about that now.
“We do know, though, that this would all be for naught if we didn’t get the signatures. That’s 150 percent of our focus right now.”
The Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that state lawmakers can be forced to testify in redistricting cases claiming that backroom huddling with consultants and a flurry of email exchanges were part of an illegal effort to keep Republicans in command of Florida.
The 5-2 ruling by justices sided with the League of Women Voters of Florida, which disputed the stand by lawmakers that “legislative privilege” shields them from testifying in lawsuits challenging the state’s new congressional and state Senate maps.
Justice Barbara Pariente, writing for the majority, said constitutional standards approved by voters in 2010 specifically were designed to keep partisan politics out of the once-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political boundaries.
“We conclude that there is no unbending right for legislators and legislative staff members to hide behind a broad assertion of legislative privilege to present the discovery of relevant evidence,” Pariente wrote.
Court documents in the lawsuits filed in Leon County Circuit Court show that emails were exchanged between aides to Senate President Don Gaetz, House Speaker Will Weatherford and consultants who analyzed proposed maps.
The emails also show that in 2010, Rich Heffley, a Florida Republican Party consultant advising Gaetz, then the Senate’s redistricting chairman, organized a “brainstorming” meeting at the state party headquarters in Tallahassee.
Other documents show that Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, designated last week as Gaetz’s successor as president, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, also angling for the job in the future, emailed district information to consultants for review.
In a legal battle whose social and political shadings have drawn an all-star cast of combatants, the Florida Supreme Court this week will consider a measure asking voters to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for a range of illnesses.
Much of Florida’s Republican leadership is being joined by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the state’s medical association and law enforcement organizations in fighting the proposed 2014 ballot measure.
On the opposite side, leading Democratic donor John Morgan, an Orlando trial lawyer close to former Gov. Charlie Crist, is bankrolling the campaign. Crist, previously a Republican while governor, is now running for the office as a Democrat.
A former Democratic House Speaker, Jon Mills of Gainesville, will make the campaign’s case before justices on Thursday.
While the politics of the fight are viewed as closely entwined in next year’s governor’s race, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said his opposition stems only from concerns about how the ballot proposal is constructed.
“It’s misleading to voters, flawed and doesn’t really tell you just how pervasive marijuana would be in this state,” Weatherford told The Palm Beach Post. “If this were approved, it would be a nightmare for the Legislature to implement.”
Florida’s Republican legislative leaders Friday said a proposed 2014 measure legalizing medical marijuana should be barred from the ballot because of a host of constitutional problems.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, submitted a brief to the Florida Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear arguments Dec. 5 on the measure backed by the organization United for Care.
Lawyers for the legislators cited failings in the proposal’s text and ballot summary, concluding it is misleading to voters and violates a number of constitutional standards.
“The proposed amendment and its ballot title and summary fail to provide the clarity that the voters deserve when considering whether to amend their constitution,” Weatherford and Gaetz said in their brief.
“This court should issue an advisory opinion directing that the proposed amendment not be placed on the ballot,” they told justices.
Attorney General Pam Bondi last month submitted papers to the court, saying she also found problems with the measure.
On Friday, the deadline set by justices for briefs in the matter, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Medical Association, Florida Sheriffs Association and the advocacy group, Save Our Society from Drugs, also weighed in against the measure.
The Florida Supreme Court approved the first proposed constitutional amendment slated for next year’s ballot — a water and land conservation measure that could set aside $10 billion over the next two decades for environmental efforts.
The Florida Land and Water Legacy, the organization sponsoring the effort, is more than halfway to the 683,149 petition signatures needed to get on the November ballot, an amount representing 8 percent of all registered voters who cast ballots in the last general election.
“This is monumental step as we continue gathering petitions to place this important measure on the ballot,” said Will Abberger, the campaign’s chairman and director of conservation finance for The Trust for Public Land. ”Our campaign is proving that Floridians care deeply about our state’s natural heritage and want to safeguard it for future generations.”
The amendment would earmark one-third of the state’s documentary stamp tax dollars, drawn from real-estate transactions, for conservation, management, and restoration of Florida’s water and land for 20 years, beginning in July 2015.
Florida’s ruling Republican legislators should be required to testify about whether they violated state law by secretly getting advice from party consultants before drawing new political boundaries, the Supreme Court was told Monday.
Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, attorney for the League of Women Voters of Florida, said that there is no “legislative privilege” which shields lawmakers from giving depositions in lawsuits looking to overturn at least portions of the state’s congressional and state Senate maps approved during last year’s redistricting.
“We have great pride in being an open government state,” D’Alemberte told reporters after an almost hourlong argument before the high court. “If you now can’t get to what the Legislature did…what does that do to the core of our principles about open government. I see this as important on several different levels.”
But Raoul Cantero, a former state Supreme Court justice now representing the Legislature in the case, said that Florida, like all states across the country, protect lawmakers from being forced to testify about the subjective thought process that went into passing legislation.
While Republican leaders have surrendered more than 30,000 documents as public records in the lawsuits underway, the court should not now demand that legislators testify about their actions, Cantero said.
“No court in the country has ever ordered that a legislator testify about the legislative process,” Cantero said following arguments. “If the court were to order depositions in this case, they’d be the first court in this country to do so. We just want (justices) to do what every other state has done.”
Former NBA star Tim Hardaway tonight is scheduled to become the first petition-signer on the Equal Marriage Florida effort to put a proposed constitutional amendment legalizing same-sex marriage in the state on the November 2014 ballot.
Hardaway, a member of some great Miami Heat teams in the 1990s, plans to sign the petition at 7 p.m. at Scully’s Tavern in the Kendall area. The campaign must gather more than 680,000 signatures from registered voters to have a chance to get on the ballot.
Signing the same-sex marriage measure comes only a couple months after Hardaway reached out and endorsed NBA player Jason Collins for coming out as the first openly gay athlete in any of the major professional leagues. Hardaway’s son, Tim, Jr., also has just been drafted by the New York Knicks.
Hardaway in 2007 made news for telling a Miami radio interviewer that he didn’t like gay people and acknowledged he was homophobic. After enduring a host of financial sanctions and being barred from activities at an NBA All-Star weekend, Hardaway began a long road toward tolerance, telling another interviewer about the incident, ”I’m going to do whatever I can to correct it.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich sent out a fund-raising appeal Tuesday pledging to erase Florida’s same-sex marriage ban.
Rich, who badly trails potential Democratic rivals Charlie Crist and Alex Sink in polls, targets Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s defense of the marriage ban in a blast email to supporters.
“The ink was barely dry on the Supreme Court’s decision before Gov. Scott announced he supports continuing Florida’s ban of same-sex marriage,” Rich said. “Well…I do not.
“As governor, I will work to pass a new constitutional amendment that will allow Florida to join the rapidly growing ranks of marriage equality states,” she said.
Equal Marriage Florida last week began work on gathering the more than 680,000 petition signatures needed for a proposed constitutional amendment erasing the gay marriage ban approved by voters only five years ago.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings Wednesday expanding gay rights brought a swift reaction in Florida, with some saying the decisions now turn the focus on Tallahassee and the state’s own 2008 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
“As Democrats, we are committed to full equality for every American,” said Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant. “Today, the Supreme Court moved us further toward that goal. All married couples will now enjoy the federal benefits and protections they have been wrongfully denied for years.”
She added, “There is still a long road ahead before we achieve full equality for GLBT Americans, and here in Florida we stand committed to continue this fight.”
A gay rights advocacy organization, Equality Florida, last week unveiled a statewide campaign called “Get Engaged,” ultimately aimed at ending the state’s constitutional prohibition against same-sex marriage.
Advocates said a ballot proposal to repeal Florida’s constitutional amendment is not planned for next year. But eliminating the ban enacted by 62 percent of Florida voters in 2008 would be a goal of the education campaign.
“Today’s rulings are a major step forward for the country, but for Floridians they fall far short of justice and are more than anything a call to action,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida.
“For those of us who live in state’s like Florida where our marriages are still not recognized, today’s rulings are a reminder that we cannot wait for justice to be handed to us, we are going to have to get engaged and fight,” she added.
Getting a voter-backed repeal effort on the ballot in Florida would not be easy, with more than 600,000 signatures needed for a proposed constitutional amendment.
Although it was only in 2008 that Floridians endorsed the ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions, polls indicate the state and the nation’s views on the issue are changing rapidly.
A survey by liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling in March found that 75 percent of Floridians support letting same-sex couples marry or have civil unions. Only 23 percent of those surveyed in Florida opposed any legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.
PPP found the numbers, pro- and con-, varied little between registered Democrats and Republicans. Minnesota, Rhode Island and Delaware this spring brought to 12 the number of states where same-sex marriage is legal.
Florida is among 30 states that have adopted bans, similar to the one justices allowed to remain struck down in California.
“It’s a great day for Americans, and for Floridians,” Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said Wednesday, following the high court rulings.
Sobel proposed legislation last spring allowing for a statewide domestic partnership registry. The measure was noteworthy in that it cleared a Senate committee before failing to advance further.
This spring in Tallahassee saw the state’s first two openly gay legislators take seats in the House, Reps. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, and Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach. But the Republican-controlled House and Senate traditionally has resisted issues endorsed by Florida’s gay and lesbian community.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott supports the same-sex ban. But former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat seen as a likely Scott opponent in next year’s governor’s race, last month endorsed gay marriage – despite signing the 2006 petition for a constitutional ban and reaffirming his opposition in 2008.
“I think for anything to change in Florida, it’s going to have to be a grassroots effort,” Sobel said
Rep. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat whose district contains a large gay population, said she was “in solidarity” with the community.
“The past has shown that equality does not always come quickly, and never cheaply; the forces of justice have often
fought those of prejudice and misunderstanding, and lost,” Stewart said Wednesday. ”But today’s ruling proves that while it is not always a steady or even march toward basic civil rights for millions of Americans, it is surely an inevitable one.”
Documents released Thursday in a wide-ranging lawsuit over last year’s redistricting effort raise more questions about communication between Florida Republicans and party consultants over proposed maps, possibly in violation of the state constitution.
In a deposition given last month, campaign consultant Marc Reichelderfer acknowledged having received draft versions of proposed congressional redistricting plans from Kirk Pepper, a top aide to then-House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.
Reichelderfer received seven proposed maps in a Dropbox account, two weeks before they were made public.
In his deposition, Reichelderfer was asked, “You got them for a reason, isn’t that right?”
The consultant responded, “I assume it was for a reason.”
Asked if it was to determine how the maps performed, politically, Reichelderfer said, “I could have done that, yes, sir.”
Democratic-allied voter groups want congressional and legislative maps thrown out because Republican leaders shared data and
maps with political consultants. The voter-approved Fair District amendments to the state constitution prohibit districts from being drawn to help or hurt incumbents.
The Florida League of Women Voters, Common Cause and individual voters organizations suing say such communication has become evident in the first rounds of data already provided by the Legislature and various consultants subpoenaed in the lawsuit.
Court documents filed earlier with Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis show that emails were exchanged between aides to Senate President Don Gaetz, House Speaker Will Weatherford and consultants who analyzed proposed maps.
The emails also show that in 2010, Rich Heffley, a Florida Republican Party consultant advising Gaetz, then the Senate’s
redistricting chairman, organized a “brainstorming” meeting at the state party headquarters in Tallahassee.
Other documents in the case show that Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who are both angling for Senate presidency in coming years, emailed district information to consultants for review.
The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee will workshop two voting-related bills sponsored by Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens on Tuesday.
One of Clemens’s proposals would automatically register voters when they get a driver’s license or state ID card (they could opt out if they choose). The second would restrict legislators to putting three constitutional amendments on the ballot at any one time.
They’ll be the first official pieces of legislation heard by the committee, tasked by Senate President Don Gaetz to figure out what went wrong with the 2012 election and propose legislative fixes.
Elections supervisors told the committee earlier this month that the number one problem – even in areas that didn’t have six hour waits like Palm Beach County – was the length of the ballot.
The GOP-controlled legislature placed 11 lengthy, and according to the supervisors confusing, constitutional questions on the 2012 ballot. Three of them passed, and the rest did not even get a majority approval from voters. Constitutional amendments require 60 percent approval by voters to pass.
Limiting the number of constitutional questions lawmakers can place on the ballot requires a change to the constitution, which means Clemens’s proposal would have to go before voters.
“The irony of this is yes, I filed a constitutional amendment to limit constitutitonal amendments,” Clemens said. “That’s the only way to accomplish it. I think it’s a legitimate constitutional issue as opposed to many of the items placed on the ballot in November which were purely political.”
For many Capitol insiders, the 60-day legislative sessions are more than long enough.
But state Sen. Jeff Clemens, a freshman who won a bitter primary against former state Rep. Mack Bernard, filed a resolution that would make the sessions last two years.
Under Clemens’s proposed constitutional amendment (SJR 512), the session would begin two weeks after the general election and last two years.
Clemens said lawmakers don’t have enough time to fully vet issues during the two-month session.
“The compressed nature of the legislature as we have it right now forces us to rush bills through without thinking them through and doesn’t allow enough time for us to delve into the budgetary process,” the Lake Worth Democrat said. “I think the voters suffer because of that.”
And the 160 members of the House and Senate, whose annual legislative salaries is around $30,000, have full-time, outside jobs that may create conflicts when voting on legislation, Clemens said.
“It’s really a case of not being able to serve two masters at once,” he said. “The idea of a full-time legislature is really rooted in allowing legislators to make decisions based on what they think is best for the state and not have to have their individual employment or individual financial situations compromised by that.”
No word yet on what Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, thinks of Clemens’s proposal. But, after the GOP-controlled legislature was blamed for long voting lines during the 2012 presidential election because they put 11 lengthy constitutional questions on the ballot, Gaetz has said instructed his members to use restraint regarding constitutional changes.
“If you have a proposed constitutional amendment, it’d better solve a constitutional problem, not an issue du jour,” Gaetz said in November.
The proposal, placed on the November ballot by the GOP-dominated legislature, would ban state money from being used to pay for abortions or insurance policies that cover the procedure except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is in danger. The measure would also change privacy rights included in the state constitution used in previous court cases to strike down anti-abortion laws.
The latest ad, called “I’ve Seen First Hand,” features a doctor warning that Amendment 6 would bar insurance companies from covering abortions in pregnancies that could threaten a woman’s health.
“No on 6″ has earmarked at least $2 million for TV, radio and online ads before the Nov. 6 election.
A previous ad entitled “Don’t Let Politicians Play Doctor” features a Gov. Rick Scott look-alike barging into a woman’s examination with her doctor.
Sandra Fluke has joined a cadre of abortion advocates urging voters to shoot down Amendment 6, a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot dealing with abortion.
The measure, one of 11 proposed changes to the constitution put on the ballot by the GOP-dominated legislature, would bar the spending of state money for abortions, something already banned by state and federal law. And it would do away with privacy restrictions in the state constitution used to strike down abortion restrictions on other proposed Florida laws.
Fluke drew national attention when Republicans refused to allow her to testify at a congressional hearing earlier this year about whether Georgetown University, a Catholic school where she was a law student, should be required to provide contraception coverage in its insurance plan. Palm Beach resident Rush Limbaugh drew condemnation for bashing attacking Fluke on his radio show, calling her a “slut.” He later apologized.
Florida’s ruling Republicans are undermining their own pledge to boost the state’s economy by shifting millions of dollars away from public education, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and state Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said Wednesday.
Flanked by a dozen university students, Graham and Smith expanded on what has become a steady campaign theme this fall for Democrats in state House and Senate races across the state.
Graham, who also served as Florida governor from 1979-87, said Republicans have come close to reversing the state’s longstanding commitment to universities, which in his time had taxpayers covering 75 percent of college costs and students paying 25 percent.
“We can’t continue down this course if we aspire to be a state where young people want to plant their personal flags,” Graham said.
The Legislature cut university spending $300 million this year, while restoring $1 billion to public schools which had shouldered a $1.3 billion reduction in 2011. Tuition was increased between 9 percent and 15 percent at the state’s 11 universities, in the latest round of several years of steep hikes.
Florida Republicans have defended the actions. Lawmakers have had to deal with multibillion dollar budget shortfalls since the recession hardened in 2007. With analysts predicting a slight surplus next year, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has lately joined the chorus calling for more dollars for schools.
But with the federal government also reducing financial aid programs, Graham concluded, “At all levels, higher education is under assault.”
Graham and Smith said the budget cuts, combined with a slow economy, are making it increasingly difficult for Florida students to attend state universities. Meanwhile, students attending Wednesday’s news conference with the Democratic leaders also told of struggling to enroll in the classes they needed, or being forced to attend school for an additional academic year because of budget cuts.
“We have demonstrably devalued education in this state,” Smith said.
Smith said Democratic candidates in legislative races have made the difficulties families face with education a central part of their campaign pitch.
“In almost every one of our House races and in the Senate races we are involved in, you’re hearing about education again,” Smith said. “It is front and center, because families in Florida, when they sit down at the breakfast table, are worried about not only jobs for themselves, but jobs for their children and grandchildren.”
While Graham decried rising student costs, he is expected to be in attendance Thursday at the Florida Supreme Court for a case he started and which critics say could spur tuition rates even higher. Graham is the lead party in a 2007 lawsuit over whether the State University System Board of Governors — or the Legislature — is empowered to set tuition.
Lower courts have ruled against Graham, whose side says a 2002 constitutional amendment makes it clear that it is solely the board’s responsibility to set tuition rates.
Under current law, the Legislature has authority to set tuition increases, and universities can add an additional increase so long as the total tuition increase year-over-year does not exceed 15 percent.
The League of Women Voters of Florida is advising voters to shoot down all 11 proposed constitutional amendments placed on the November ballot by the legislature.
The measures include changes to the state’s property tax system, a state revenue cap, weakening the state constitutional privacy protection used to defend abortion rights and amending the separation of church and state doctrine by allowing public money to be spent on religious schools. Another, Amendment 5, would give the legislature a say in the selection of Supreme Court justices and the courts’ rules.
“From beginning to end, these amendments are bad ideas,” Florida league president Deirdre Macnab told reporters in a telephone conference today. “We are strongly opposing all of the 11 amendments on the ballots and we are encouraging voters to give them a thumbs down.”