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Tuition break for immigrants gains high-profile Senate opponents

Thursday, April 17th, 2014 by John Kennedy

House Speaker Will Weatherford’s push to grant in-state tuition to children of undocumented immigrants gained a couple of high-profile opponents Thursday in the Florida Senate.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, sent an email newsletter to voters in his Panhandle district assuring them that he would not vote the the measure. And Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, followed that with a statement outlining reasons why he won’t schedule the bill in his committee.

With the legislative session entering its final two weeks on Monday, the legislation (SB 1400, CS/HB 851) seen as designed to help Republicans woo Hispanic voters this fall is clearly in jeopardy.

“In-state tuition discounts should, in my view, be reserved for legal residents of Florida,” Negron said. “Florida law does not prohibit students who are undocumented from accessing our state colleges and universities.

“Once these students favorably resolve their residency status, they could become eligible for in-state tuition,” he concluded.

Weatherford, however, wasn’t ready to call the measure dead Thursday.

“There are a lot of folks praying for these kids.,” Weatherford said. “Two weeks is a long time and I remain optimistic.”

The House last month OK’d in-state tuition with the support of Democrats and more than half the Republican caucus, with Weatherford spearheading the change. But the issue remains explosive within the Florida GOP, where tea party conservatives have railed against the measure as giving a benefit to those here illegally.

Average nonresident tuition is $21,434 annually, compared with the in-state average of $6,318.

Gov. Rick Scott, as a 2010 candidate pledged to fight for tougher immigration controls in Florida but did little once elected. Scott has confined his comments on the legislation to echoing support for lowering tuition costs for Florida students, without addressing how the bill extends that privilege to undocumented immigrants.

With a bruising governor’s race underway, the tuition bill appeared primed to be a GOP peace offering to Hispanics, who have increasingly sided with Democratic candidates.

President Obama has embraced such legislation as part of Dream Act efforts to grant residency status to undocumented aliens. Obama has overwhelmingly carried the Florida Hispanic vote the past two presidential elections.

Watchdog groups urge action on ethics bills in session’s homestretch

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Watchdog groups Wednesday urged Florida lawmakers to finalize ethics proposals that would strengthen access to public records and require more lobbyists to register and disclose how much they get paid.

Both measures have cleared the Senate, but are languishing in the House. The Legislature returns from a Passover-Easter break on Monday to begin the session’s last scheduled two weeks.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, have touted ethics reforms as a central part of their two-year term as leaders. This year’s proposals could represent a postscript to steps taken last year, which included a revamping of how political fund-raising committees operate.

Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, a government oversight group, said lawmakers need to enhance last year’s moves.

“We encourage our legislative leaders to build on these small steps and pass major ethics reform and open government legislation in the remaining two weeks,” Krassner said.

Among those calling for action were representatives of the First Amendment Foundation, Common Cause of Florida, the Citizens Awareness Foundation and Tea Party Network.

Barbara Petersen, president of the news organization-backed First Amendment Foundation, said that while 250 public records exemptions existed in 1985, that number could climb to 1,100 if some two-dozen proposed loopholes are created this year.

One bill (SB 1648) pushed by advocates Wednesday clarifies issues involving fees for public records, including those sought by citizens and later costs run up by attorneys seeking documents. It also requires more training of government employees to satisfy the demands of Florida’s open records laws.

The other measure (SB 846) seen as a priority by open government advocates would require lobbyists working the state’s almost 1,000 independent special districts to register and publicly disclose how much they get paid.

Palm Beach County, alone, has more than 60 such districts, ranging from the huge South Florida Water Management District to municipal airport, port, drainage and community development districts.

Billions of taxpayer dollars flow through these districts.

“Certainly, our state lawmakers are outnumbered by lobbyists nearly 12-to-1,” Krassner said. “The lobbying community…is very powerful in our state Capitol. Any measure that looks to require more disclosure from lobbyists is going to face some resistance.”

In a year of budget plenty, waiting lists for elderly, disabled trimmed only a little

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Despite a year of plenty for state lawmakers, with overall spending almost certain to hit record levels, relatively meager increases proposed for elderly and disabled programs do little to scale back the massive backlog of Floridians seeking aid.

The state’s waiting lists for elderly long-term health services, community care, Alzheimer’s Disease assistance and help for people with disabilities would shrink by only modest percentages, despite a $1.2 billion surplus of state revenue fueling rival $75 billion House and Senate budget proposals.

Lawmakers are touting this year’s plan to spend roughly $37 million to reduce the number of elderly Floridians awaiting services. But legislators acknowledge the line won’t really be shortened by much.

With the nation’s largest number of people over age 65, Florida has a 9,000-person waiting list for community care services that help keep the elderly in their homes. Advocates say the number of people seeking services could actually be more than three times that.

But in its budget, House is looking to take 751 people off the waiting list; the Senate would add 601 Floridians for care.

Either way, less than 10 percent of those seeking coverage will gain services.

“This is penny-wise and pound-foolish not to spend more,” said David Bruns, spokesman for AARP-Florida. “The cost of people going into nursing homes is so much more. But (legislators) are taking such a small step.”

Full story here:  bit.ly/1kUJURa

 

Private school voucher bill scaled back again to woo Senate

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A measure beefing-up the state’s private school voucher program launched under former Gov. Jeb Bush was reworked again Wednesday by the House in a bid to reach accord with a resistent Senate.

The legislation (HB 7167) was amended by House sponsor Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, to eliminate a proposed expansion of the dollar caps that limit the growth of the program.

The bill now maintains the current caps that allow annual 25 percent increases from the current $286 million in tax credits, which pays for almost 60,000 low-income students to attend 1,400, mostly faith-based private schools.

Facing earlier opposition, Diaz has already dropped an initial plan to allow companies to steer a portion of their state sales-tax obligation to the program.

The Tax Credit Scholarship Program, created in 2002, gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to finance private school scholarships for children from low-income households.

While scaled-back, the House proposal does continue to expand the pool of students who could be eligible for taxpayer scholarships. House Republicans also beat back Democratic efforts to require that these private-school students undergo standardized testing like that in public schools.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said he won’t go along with any expansion for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program without a testing provision — and his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, broke party ranks to join Democrats in those losing votes on the House floor.

The younger Gaetz’s stand may signal that the bill still faces a stern test in the Senate, which earlier dropped any plans to consider an expansion bill unless mandatory testing was included.

Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, defended maintaining a distinction between the taxpayer-funded private school students and those who go to public schools.

“Why would we want to make it look just like the school that didn’t work for these children?” Adkins said.

While close to 60,000 students received scholarships this year, demand is much greater, with almost 94,000 applications made by families, according to Step Up for Students, the Tampa-based nonprofit which administers the program.

The nonprofit also says scholarship students are subject to testing, with most taking Stanford Achievement tests at private schools.

Step Up for Students, this year can collect 3 percent for administrative costs, or $8.6 million. And with the program on pace to spend $873.6 million by 2018, Step Up for Students would be poised to collect $26.2 million that year for office costs and salaries – an amount ridiculed Wednesday by Democrats.

 

Pressure, and a change of heart gives new life to Richardson bill in House

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A former fruit picker convicted but later cleared of committing one of the most brutal mass murders in Florida history edged closer Tuesday to becoming eligible for more than $1 million in state compensation.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted 11-0 to approve a bill (HB 227) created to help James Richardson, accused of killing his seven children by poisoning them with insecticide in the DeSoto County town of Arcadia, just days before Halloween 1967.

Richardson spent 21 ½ years in prison — including four years on Death Row—before being released in 1989 after then-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno was appointed by Gov. Bob Martinez to review the case.

Reno found wide-ranging misconduct by criminal investigators and prosecutors.

While Richardson was behind bars, a babysitter for the children, Betsy Reese, told neighbors that she had killed them, but was never charged.

Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, sponsor of the bill, said he was drawn to the case because he had served as a police officer in North Florida and is aware of the state’s “legacy of injustice.”

“I always said that I would do everything I could to correct wrongs of the past,” Kerner said following Tuesday’s hearing. “I believe in this particular instance, that’s what happened back in 1967.”

The legislation, however, drew a hearing Tuesday only after the Florida Legislative Black Caucus appealed to House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, had refused to schedule a hearing on the measure, telling the Palm Beach Post that he had problems with a bill cast to help only one person. On Tuesday, however, Gaetz said his thinking had changed.

Gaetz said he had spoken with Kerner and had become convinced the legislation was needed to fix, “a systemic loophole that one person fell through.”

Bill stemming from decades-old Richardson case to be heard by House panel

Friday, April 4th, 2014 by John Kennedy

With some nudging from the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, legislation will be heard by a House panel next week aimed at compensating an elderly, former fruit picker wrongfully accused of one of the worst mass murders in state history.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, has called a special meeting Tuesday of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee he chairs to hear the bill (HB 227) sponsored by Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth. The bill would expand the state’s wrongful incarceration law to consider the case of James Richardson, now of Wichita, Kansas.

Richardson, now 77, lived in Arcadia in 1967 when he was accused on poisoning his seven children. Richardson pent more than two decades behind bars, including four years on Death Row, before he was freed in 1989 amid allegations of misconduct and perjury by prosecutors and investigators.

Although the crime remains unsolved, evidence points to a vengeful neighbor as the likely killer. She is long dead.

Gaetz told the Palm Beach Post that he was reluctant to consider the bill because it effectively would change state law for one individual. Kerner, Senate sponsor Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, and members of the black caucus met this week with House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, to make the case for the measure being heard.

Thompson’s bill is almost ready to be heard by the full Senate, but would not likely be considered in the House unless it cleared at least Gaetz’s panel.

The legislation would broaden the state’s wrongful incarceration law to include someone who has received a nolle prosequi declaration from a special prosecutor.

That declaration by then-Miami-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno closed Richardson’s case to further action by the state. But it also has contributed to Richardson being barred from compensation under current Florida law.

Those eligible for wrongful incarceration claims must be effectively declared innocent by a court — usually based on DNA evidence. Richardson has never been found innocent, evidence in the case has been lost or destroyed, and it long precedes the advances of DNA science.

House Republicans float late-hour pension overhaul

Friday, April 4th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The state’s traditional pension plan would be closed to senior managers and other new workers would have to wait longer to be eligible for the plan under legislation that cleared a House panel Friday on a partyline vote.

With a more aggressive overhaul of the Florida Retirement System looking dead this session, the House State Affairs Committee floated a more modest approach as the Legislature lurches into the session’s final month.

While ruling Republicans in recent years demanded changes because they viewed the $144.4 billion pension as financially unstable, the rhetoric has changed with the new proposal. The proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said the new approach is a “modernization” of the FRS.

Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, endorsed the change while acknowledging the current pension is on solid financial footing.

“Pensions are a 20th century dinosaur in a 21st century world,” Caldwell said. “We may have the strongest dinosaur out there, but it’s still a dinosaur.”

Democrats and public employees’ unions, however,  joined in opposing the change, saying it is unwarranted.

“We are playing fast and loose with public policy,” said Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, have made changing the FRS one of their priority proposals this spring.

But an earlier proposed change centered on offering new employees a so-called ‘cash balance’ option instead of the traditional pension barely cleared a Senate committee and stalled in the House while a financial study was being prepared.

The late-hour plan taking shape Friday is similar to a proposal backed by the Senate last year. So there is some possibility that it may gain strength. But it looms as a potentially divisive homestretch issue in a session where ruling Republicans appear uninterested in conflicts that could damage Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election prospects this fall.

Supporters of the proposal say that a majority of public employees currently fail to stay in the system long enough to qualify for the traditional pension. They also said that the current 622,000 active members of the FRS and 348,000 retirees wouldn’t be affected by the change in the plan.

Opponents disagreed, saying that limiting some new employees from joining the traditional pension will hurt it financially in coming years.

“The defined benefit plan is going to be weaker,” said Ron Silver, a former legislator now representing the Teamsters Joint Council, whose union includes state correctional officers. “It’ll be less than what it is today.”

Senate OK’s beefing up stand your ground with ‘warning shot’ provision

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Senate approved legislation expanding Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law Thursday, giving new legal safeguards to people who threaten to use a firearm in self-defense or fire a warning shot instead of fleeing.

The measure (CS/HB 89) was OK’d 32-7.  While opponents said expanding Florida’s controversial self-defense law risks the spread of gun violence in Florida, supporters said it gave judges a chance to consider more issues that led to a violent encounter.

“This is just one more step forward for citizens to protect themselves,” said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, the Senate sponsor.

The legislation, approved last week by the House, now goes to Gov. Rick Scott, who hasn’t indicated whether he would sign it.

Stand your ground, which authorizes people to fight back instead of retreating when threatened, became Florida law in 2005. But it has come under intense scrutiny following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin two years ago and more recently Jordan Davis, a Jacksonville youth shot dead following a confrontation over loud music.

Still, calls for a warning shot exemption emerged with the Marissa Alexander case, a Jacksonville woman awaiting a July retrial on an aggravated assault charge, which she received after alleging she fired a warning shot to protect herself from a violent husband. Aggravated assault with a weapon carryiesa minimum mandatory prison sentence under Florida’s 10-20-Life law.

“This bill will allow a judge to look at extenuating circumstances,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville. “I may not like some of the components in this bill, but it allows judges to look at several circumstances to make a correct ruling.”

But Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, warned, “this is the wrong message to send.”

“There are communities around Florida where gun violence is too prevalent,” he added.

The legislation also allows added legal protection when force is threatened. People cleared by the courts because they acted in self-defense would be authorized to petition courts to have their records expunged.

Black caucus urges Weatherford to take action on Richardson case

Monday, March 31st, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Florida Legislative Black Caucus agreed Monday night to urge House Speaker Will Weatherford to let legislation be heard aimed at compensating an elderly man convicted but later absolved of one of the most infamous mass murders in state history.

The measure amounts to a state apology to James Richardson, a migrant farmworker from Arcadia accused in 1967 of poisoning his seven children.

Richardson spent more than two decades behind bars, including four years on Death Row, before he was freed in 1989 amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and perjury.

Caucus Chairman Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said he will draft a letter to Weatherford bearing the signatures of caucus members, asking that he order the legislation (HB 227) heard in Chairman Matt Gaetz’s House Criminal Justice Subcommittee or redirect it to another panel.

The subcommittee is scheduled to conclude its work next week and Gaetz, R-Shalimar, has not scheduled the bill for a hearing.

Without any movement in the House, the effort for Richardson is likely doomed even though a similar bill (CS/SB 326) has cleared three Senate panels on unanimous votes and could soon go to the full Senate.

“We’re really at a loss here,” Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, told the caucus Monday night in seeking their support.

Under the narrowly drawn measure Richardson could qualify for a $1.2 million state payment under the state’s wrongful incarceration law. It would affect only someone sentenced to life in prison or death before Jan. 1, 1980 and would be automatically repealed in two years, presumably after Richardson could gain compensation.

Richardson, now age 77, is in frail health and living in Wichita, Kansas.

The legislation would broaden the state’s wrongful incarceration law to include someone who has received a nolle prosequi declaration from a special prosecutor.

That declaration by then-Miami-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno closed the case to further action by the state, but it also has contributed to Richardson being barred from compensation under current Florida law.

Those eligible for wrongful incarceration claims must be effectively declared innocent by a court — usually based on DNA evidence. Richardson has never been found innocent, evidence in the case has been lost or destroyed, and it long precedes the advances of DNA science.

Scott signs G.I. Bill in military-rich Panhandle

Monday, March 31st, 2014 by John Kennedy

Florida’s Republican-ruled Legislature made a priority of approving the state’s so-called G.I. Bill this spring, and Gov. Rick Scott followed suit Monday by signing the measure into law in Panama City, the heart of the military-rich Panhandle.

“We are working to be the most military-friendly state in the nation, and this is another step to support our brave men and women who serve our nation,” Scott said.

The legislation (HB 7015) makes veterans eligible for in-state tuition and also provides scholarships for members of the state’s National Guard. Scott was joined by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and several GOP lawmakers in the bill-signing.

The in-state tuition breaks granted veterans are expected to cost taxpayers $11.7 million in 2014-15.

More than 1.5 million veterans live in Florida, including 61,000 active duty personnel, state officials said. The Florida National Guard has 12,000 active members.

Florida’s military presence has a $73 billion annual economic impact, accounting for 758,000 jobs, and represents the third largest piece of the state’s economy, following agriculture and tourism, officials said.

The bill also provides $12.5 million for renovating armories around the state. Another $7.5 million is set aside for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to acquire land needed near military bases around the state to prevent the encroachment of other industries.

House throws a ‘Hail Mary,’ critics say, in keeping vouchers alive

Friday, March 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A House push to expand the state’s controversial, private-school voucher program was repackaged Friday in an effort to win over a resistant state Senate in the session’s closing weeks.

The House Education Appropriations Subcommittee overhauled the voucher proposal and included in it changes that broaden the use of the state’s McKay Scholarship program for children with disabilities.

For the House and Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has promised a “massive expansion” of school choice this year, it’s a clear attempt to keep the expansion alive.

The McKay Scholarship changes are eagerly sought by Senate leaders and combining the two efforts is a tactical move by the House.

Still, while the House dropped its initial plan to allow sales tax dollars to flow to the voucher program for the first time, the new version does not add any school testing requirements. In withdrawing its Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program legislation last week, the Senate said it was because it failed to require student assessments similar to those in public schools.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who spearheaded the retooled legislation Friday, said the program has never demanded private school students to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and would not require them to take FCAT’s successor in the fall.

“You have voted for this program in the past,” Fresen told committee members opposing the legislation. “Nothing in this bill changes the level of accountability.”

But Rep. Karen Castor-Dentel, D-Orlando, said the proposal is a “massive expansion of private school vouchers.”

“We are giving up on our legislative responsibility to ensure that our children are learning,” she added, calling the rewrite a political “Hail Mary” for the troubled expansion effort.

The measure was approved Friday in a partyline vote, with Democrats opposed.

Joanne McCall, a vice-president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, also condemned the tactical move by the House.

“I have to say as a teacher who taught disabled students daily, that this attempt to salvage expansion of the voucher program by attaching it to this bill is disingenuous to the public and to those of us who have dedicated our careers to working with students with disabilities,” McCall said.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is authorized to spend as much as $286 million this year to send 59,674 mostly black and Hispanic low-income students to more than 1,400 private schools across the state, three-fourths of them faith-based.

The program gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to finance the private school scholarships. The initial House bill would have bolstered that by allowing companies to dedicate sales-tax dollars to scholarships.

The program’s funding has steadily climbed, with $357.8 million already the cap for scholarships next year. But the measure approved Friday increases that to  $903.8 million by 2018. The number of scholarships available will almost double.

Family income requirements also would be eased,  allowing more working-class families to qualify for the program, supporters said.

Meanwhile, the legislation continues to allow that 3 percent of the annual cap go toward administrative costs, a fee that allows Step Up for Students, a politically-connected Tampa-based nonprofit, to collect $8.6 million this year. When the program reaches its full capacity, Step Up could be collecting $26.2 million for expenses.

 

Weatherford’s “massive expansion” of school choice faces double-trouble

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Florida Senate dealt House Speaker Will Weatherford another setback Tuesday, dramatically scaling-back legislation aimed at fostering the growth of more charter schools in the state.

The action by the Senate Education Committee came only days after senators withdrew plans to consider a bill eventually doubling the 60,000 students now receiving taxpayer-funded private school vouchers in Florida.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, promised a “massive expansion” of school choice by lawmakers this spring. But with lawmakers nearing the midpoint of the two-month session, the choice push has gotten beat back – at the hands of fellow Republicans in the Senate.

“This is a plan that is just not yet ready for prime time,” said Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, who said that he is a “charter fan.”

Legg is business manager for a charter school co-founded by his wife. But he said the House-backed proposal favored by charter school advocates went too far.

The legislation backed by charter advocates would have required school districts statewide to use a standard contract that would apply to all charter school governing boards. Districts also would be required to make available under-used buildings and classrooms for lease to charter operators.

Also, the pro-charter proposal would make it easier for “high-performing” charter school companies operating out-of-state to enter the Florida market and expand at-will once they are here.

While voucher expansion languishes, House gives charter schools more heft

Monday, March 24th, 2014 by John Kennedy

While efforts to expand private-school vouchers in Florida have stalled, a push by Republican leaders to help charter schools spread in the state continued to gain traction Monday.

The legislation, opposed by Palm Beach County and other school districts, cleared the House education-budget subcommittee in a party-line vote, with Democrats voting against the measure.

The charter school bill (HB 7083) is seen as a key part of a “massive expansion” of school choice promised this session by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

“We’re trying to streamline the process so that we can get more quality educational opportunities available for our children across the state,” said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, sponsor of the measure.

But another proposal endorsed by Weatherford, aimed at doubling the 60,000 students now getting taxpayer money to attend private schools, looks endangered. The Senate last week withdrew its version of the legislation in a dispute over what kind of standardized tests these voucher students would take.

Last week’s blow-up heightens the stakes for reaching agreement this spring on the charter school proposal.

Full story here:   bit.ly/1m347Fd

House and Senate budgets roll out — topping Scott’s blueprint

Friday, March 21st, 2014 by John Kennedy

The House unveiled it’s 2014-15 state budget proposal Friday, following the Senate’s release a day earlier and setting the legislative session on course for the homestretch haggling.

Both proposals top the $74.2 billion blueprint Gov. Rick Scott rolled out in January. The Senate would spend $74.8 billion, while the House weighs in at $75.3 billion. Each would prove the largest spending plans in state history.

In an election year, lawmakers usually look favorably on school spending and this year’s no different. Still, neither hit the $1 billion increases that marked the last two years of state spending following a $1.3 billion cut for schools during Scott’s first year as governor.

While Scott earlier recommended a $542 million boost for K-12, the Senate is calling for a $651 million boost and the House $740.8 million more. The Legislature has been helped by new revenue projections, which fattened the state’s budget surplus to $1.2 billion.

The per-pupil increase of 3 percent in the House surpasses the 2.5 percent Scott called for, and the 2.6 percent emerging from the Senate.

Still, the per-pupil amount next year still looks certain to be a couple hundred dollars below the record $7,126 achieved in 2007-08, before the state’s economy tanked with the recession.

Senate withdraws voucher bill, expansion plan looks dead

Thursday, March 20th, 2014 by John Kennedy

After promising a “massive expansion” of school choice options this session, House Speaker Will Weatherford retooled his rhetoric Thursday after the Senate dropped plans to take up a proposed build-up of the state’s private school voucher program.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he was withdrawing his version (SB 1620) of the voucher bill advancing in the House.  At least part of the dispute is rooted in Senate President Don Gaetz’s demand that students taking part in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program undergo testing in private schools similar to that in public schools.

“It’s a shame. A terrible shame,” Weatherford said. “Thousands of children seeking more opportunities for a better life will be denied. I cannot see any reason why we’d quit on these kids.”

The bill (HB 7099) sailing through the House would make the scholarship program eligible for sales tax money for the first time in its 12-year history. With the new cash, the 60,000 students now getting private-school scholarships could double in four years, rivaling the size of larger public school districts in Florida.

While Republicans are rallying around the expansion, the proposal also drew fierce critics, including the Palm Beach County School Board and most other districts. The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, took a measure of credit for killing the legislation, saying it maintained pressure on lawmakers.

“Public education stakeholders descended on Tallahassee en masse this week to protest this dramatic expansion of the state’s private and religious school voucher program,” said FEA Vice President Joanne McCall. “Our members and voters throughout the state sent thousands of letters to legislators this week.”

The Palm Beach Post also reported that there was rising criticism of what the legislation would mean to the politically connected nonprofit that oversees the scholarship program, created under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Step Up for Students could more than triple the amount of money it collects under the voucher legislation. The 3 percent fee it collects now brings in $8.6 million but could more than triple to $26.2 million when the program reached its full capacity envisioned under the legislation.

“It is a very difficult task to quickly remake the academic accountability for this program, especially in this environment,” said John Kirtley, chairman of Step Up for Students. “We appreciate the efforts of Speaker Weatherford, President Gaetz, Senator Galvano and Rep. Diaz to try work this out.

The program can spend as much as $286 million this year to send 59,674 mostly black and Hispanic low-income students to more than 1,400 private schools across the state, three-fourths of them faith-based.

The program gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to finance the private school scholarships. The legislation sets the program on pace to spend $873.6 million by 2018, when about 120,000 students were expected to be in private schools on taxpayer money.

Charlotte’s Web marijuana bill advances in House, despite questions

Thursday, March 20th, 2014 by John Kennedy

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.”

Legislature’s budget work begins, flush with cash and kumbaya

Thursday, March 13th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Florida House took the first step toward crafting the 2014-15 state budget Thursday by allocating lump-sum dollars to various subcommittees who soon will start making line-by-line spending recommendations.

There are few surprises.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, hinted that his chamber was closely aligned with Rick Scott’s push for at least $500 million in tax-and-fee reductions and virtually the same $542 million increase in school spending sought by the governor. The $1.2 billion in budget reserves set aside also is about the same as the current year.

“Due to improved economic conditions and the continued fiscal constraint of the Legislature, our state is well on the road to financial recovery,” Weatherford said in a statement accompanying the budget allocations.

“It remains vitally important to maintain the disciplined fiscal principles that led us to where we are today but also recognize that the state can now afford to return revenues to the taxpayer in addition to funding state priorities,” he added.

Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, have acknowledged they are seeking to avoid political drama this session, just months before a pivotal election in which the Republican Party’s 16-year command of the governor’s office could be in jeopardy.

Spending decisions also were made easier Wednesday when state economists increased by $150 million the amount of projected revenue that is available to dole out next year.

Finally, the kumbaya was complete when both sides Thursday came to virtual agreement on a $400 million reduction in motorist fees first recommended by Scott. The Senate had been promoting a smaller cut — about $230 million — but, like the House and governor, came around to the higher figure.

“I’m pleased that as the bill moved through the committee process, we gained support within the Senate to increase the amount and scope of this needed reduction in fees,” said Senate Budget Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart. ” I’m grateful to Gov. Scott and our colleagues in the House for their leadership on this important issue.”

 

Florida GI Bill, with tuition breaks for vets, sent to Scott

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014 by John Kennedy

With senators saying they hoped it gives Florida prominence among military veterans, the state Senate approved Tuesday a new Florida GI Bill, which makes veterans eligible for in-state tuition and also provide scholarships for members of the state’s National Guard.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, an Army veteran who won a Bronze Star in Vietnam, said the legislation (CS/HB 7015) will help draw military retirees and keep freshly discharged veterans to Florida, bringing fresh skills to the state economy.

“We want to encourage them to make Florida their home over any other state,” Richter said.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Merritt Island, said, “Let’s all continue…to meet the needs of those who serve our freedom.”

The legislation was unanimously approved last week in the House. The Senate followed suit Tuesday on a 38-0 vote, sending the measure to Gov. Rick Scott  who is expected to sign it into law.

The legislation carries a $21.7 million price tag for the coming year. Most of the cost, $12.5 million, is for renovating armories around the state. The remaining $7.5 million is for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to acquire land needed near military bases around the state to prevent the encroachment of other businesses or industry.

The DEP dollars are largely aimed at maintaining Florida’s place as a prime state for military installations, supporters of the bill said.

The in-state tuition breaks granted veterans is expected to cost taxpayers $11.7 million in 2013-14.

More than 1.5 million veterans live in Florida, including 61,000 active duty personnel, state officials said. The Florida National Guard has 12,000 active members.

Florida’s military presence has a $73 billion annual economic impact, accounting for some 758,000 jobs and represents the third largest piece of the state’s economy, following agriculture and tourism, officials said.

 

Scott uses State of the State to sound his campaign themes

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014 by John Kennedy

In a State of the State speech colored by themes from his re-election campaign, Gov. Rick Scott opened the 2014 Legislature telling lawmakers that the state has clawed back from the depths of the recession but plenty of rebuilding lies ahead.

Scott’s 31-minute address to a joint session of the Legislature reflected on the skyrocketing unemployment, multi-billion dollar budget shortfall and housing crisis he faced when taking office three years ago.

He didn’t directly blame his predecessor, former Gov. Charlie Crist. But Scott made it clear that Crist, now a Democrat challenging Scott for re-election, played a central role in the state’s economic demise.

“They say it doesn’t matter who was running our state – that anyone would have been just a victim of the times. I disagree,” Scott told lawmakers crowded into a House chamber amid desks overflowing with floral arrangements.

“Our leaders especially – and every person in our state – are not simply bystanders in the arena of life, where the hard battles are fought and history is made,” Scott added.

Scott touted a range of policy initiatives for the 60-day session ahead, using invited business leaders, veterans and a Delray Beach teacher seated in the House public gallery to help make his points.

Ruthie Santiago, from Spady Elementary School, continued teaching even while battling breast cancer she has since overcome, Scott said.

“Teachers like Ruthie make Florida schools some of the best in the country,” Scott said.

The governor then urged lawmakers to use the session to continue working on firing the state’s economy, especially the signature $500 million tax and fee cut package he is proposing.

“I am asking you to join with me this session to say to all the people of Florida, we have more work left to do, so let’s keep working,” Scott said.

Weatherford opens House saying tax cuts are a ‘real stimulus plan’

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014 by John Kennedy

House Speaker Will Weatherford convened the House on Tuesday, the opening day of the 2014 session, urging lawmakers to put election-year campaigning on hold for the next couple months while tackling an “ambitious and far-reaching” work plan.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, ridiculed Washington for passing “far more blame than bills.” But he said Florida lawmakers could be different — starting with a $500 million tax and fee cut that’s become the signature goal of Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

“It’s our version of a real stimulus plan – one that is good for Florida’s families and Florida’s economy,” Weatherford said.

Weatherford also highlighted major portions of the work plan he and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, put together, saying efforts to strengthen ethics laws, expanding jobs and dramatically boosting charter and voucher schools will be priorities. Although the charter and voucher proposals are fiercely opposed by Democrats and most school districts, Weatherford suggested that support for the push should be simple.

“No child’s future success should be dictated by their zip code,” Weatherford said. “In my opinion, no other issue today personifies freedom, opportunity and the God-given “right to rise” for our children better than the school choice movement.”

He said, “Let us agree not to fight each other and instead fight for them.”

Weatherford also promoted allowing children of undocumented aliens living in Florida to qualify for in-state tuition. For years, most Republicans have fought such tuition breaks and the issue remains bitterly opposed within many in the party’s tea party wing.

He accused Washington of ducking the immigration issue, leaving states to deal with such issues.

“There are children, through no fault of their own, who live in our state, are educated in our public schools, and yet after investing tens of thousands of dollars to educate them, we shut the door on their future,” Weatherford said. “We no longer treat them as Floridians.

“It makes no sense fiscally. It makes no sense economically,” he added. “And it makes no sense morally – because we should never punish a child for the mistakes of their parents.”

 

 

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