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Negron advice on budget talks: ‘Don’t leave the Capitol’

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Millions of dollars in hometown water projects along with money for cleanup of the Everglades and troubled Indian River Lagoon were among the big ticket issues separating House and Senate budget negotiators as they worked toward a midnight deadline Wednesday.

The bottom-line for public schools and terms of the state’s plan to distribute $200 million in performance incentives to Florida’s 12 public universities still separates the two sides, working since Monday on reaching a consensus $75 billion budget for 2014-15.

The dozens of issues that are certain to remain unsettled will be handed over to House budget chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, and his Senate counterpart, Joe Negron, R-Stuart, on Thursday. They’ll begin more deal-making that will stretch through the weekend.

“One thing you learn when you get to Tallahassee is you don’t leave the Capitol building the weekend before session ends, because one of your projects may have been traded for someone who is still in the Capitol,” Negron said. “We’ll be working over the weekend and, of course, the presiding officers will have the last word on the budget.”

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, have until Tuesday to button-up the spending plan. That would start the clock on the state’s constitutionally required 72-hour waiting period preceding a May 2 vote, the session’s final scheduled day.

The House spends $13 million more than the Senate on three-dozen local water projects, including money sought for work in Palm Beach County. The House also spends $12 million more than the Senate on freshwater springs protection — but the overall level on both sides still falls short of what Gov. Rick Scott wants.

Work on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee — close to Negron’s home district — draws at least $82 million in the Senate, but would get nothing in the House spending plan. Scores of differences also remain on hometown projects close to top lawmakers, including cash for theaters, schools, and social service programs.

“Some of the projects will fall out during conference, some will be added,” Negron said.

House ban on e-cigs for kids lets local regulations stand

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Laws already regulating the sale of electronic cigarettes in Palm Beach County and other communities would endure under legislation approved Wednesday that ban their sale to minors.

The House voted 114-0 to approve the statewide prohibition on selling nicotine dispensing devices to those under age 18. The measure still has to win final approval from the Senate before going to Gov. Rick Scott.

Anti-smoking advocates were opposing the House’s earlier version of the bill, which would have eliminated local ordinances restricting various sales and display of the devices.

But sponsor Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, withdrew that provision, drawing praise from supporters of the tougher law.

“He’s doing what’s right for the state of Florida,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

Palm Beach County is among 28 counties and 28 Florida cities which have adopted some kind of e-cigarette regulation that could have been affected by the initial House proposal, which took standards regulating cigarettes and smokeless tobacco and applied them to e-cigarettes.

The Florida Retail Federation was among those pushing for the so-called statewide preemption of local regulations.

Florida’s Clean Indoor Air Act, enacted in 1985, has prohibited communities from enacting tougher local standards than what the state law set. But like the name implies, it’s aimed chiefly at barring smoking indoors, at workplaces, restaurants and other public buildings.

Still, the statewide preemption has tripped up local efforts to ban smoking on beaches, and this year inspired a push for legislation to allow a smoking ban on playgrounds, a proposal which hasn’t gained traction with lawmakers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida is among 12 states that have a statewide standard banning tougher local regulations, a number that is down from 19 states in 2004.

 

 

While Dems sense political theater, Scott takes stage to fight for immigrant tuition

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

A few hours after the Senate Appropriations Committee refused to hear an amendment granting in-state tuition to children of undocumented immigrants, Gov. Rick Scott turned to the media Tuesday to keep the issue alive.

The legislation has already cleared the House. But it has hit a roadblock in the Florida Senate where Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Senate Budget Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart, say they will refuse to schedule it.

On Tuesday, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, ruled the in-state amendment out of order.

But since Thrasher doubles as Scott’s campaign chairman, the move fed Democratic suspicions that the standoff is mostly political theater — orchestrated to make Scott look heroic among Hispanic voters, with whom polls show he is far behind Democratic rival Charlie Crist.

“This looks like an election year ploy, and that’s pathetic,” House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale earlier told the Palm Beach Post.

Meeting with reporters outside his Capitol office, Scott blamed Crist both for increasing state tuition and for opposing the in-state tuition provision when he was the state’s Republican governor.

“We’re cleaning up his mess,” Scott said. “I call on the Florida Senate…this is the right thing for the students of our state. We have had a dramatic turnaround in our state. We’ve got to give these children the same opportunity as all children. Whatever country you were born in, whatever family or zip code, you have the chance to live the dream. Part of that dream is being able to afford education.”

As a candidate in 2010, Scott vowed to enact tough, Arizona-style sanctions against illegal immigration to Florida, a promise he later abandoned as governor. Tea party groups remain opposed to the in-state tuition bill, seeing it as rewarding those who are in Florida illegally.

Gaetz said last week that he only recently learned of Scott’s support for the tuition bill, and that the governor had not sought to lobby him. But last week, Scott was joined by former Govs. Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez in calling for action on the bill, a day after Negron said he would not hear the measure in Tuesday’s  Appropriations Committee.

Bill giving charter schools more firepower clears House

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Charter schools, already growing explosively in Florida, could gain even more firepower under legislation approved Tuesday by the House in a mostly partyline vote.

Democrats sided with school districts, including Palm Beach County, which oppose the measure. It would make it easier for out-of-state “high-performing” charter school companies to enter Florida and force districts to use a standard contract which they say will hurt their ability to negotiate.

Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, urged lawmakers to kill the measure (CS/HB 7083), warning it is certain to draw a constitutional challenge from 67 school boards.

“This bill…is a walking lawsuit,” Saunders said.

The measure cleared the House 68-50, with a handful of Republicans defecting to join Democrats in opposition. The bill’s fate also is uncertain in the Senate, where Republican leaders so far have refused to consider the proposal.

Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, the House sponsor, said concerns about the legislation are overstated. Many of the proposals grew out of a task force including lawmakers and school district officials, which spent the last year reviewing the state’s charter school system.

“This is a bill that was vetted all last year and concessions were made,” Diaz said.

Budget talks open, with Gaetz calling for “businesslike schedule”

Monday, April 21st, 2014 by John Kennedy

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz kicked off budget negotiations between the two sides Monday, predicting mostly smooth and swift-running talks toward completing a roughly $75 billion election-year spending plan.

The House and Senate have about a week to complete a process that usually takes at least twice that time. Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the Legislature’s absence last week for the Passover-Easter holidays will force a “very businesslike schedule” for the session’s homestretch.

“This is not a partisan exercise,” Gaetz said. “We’re in this together.”

The session is scheduled to end May 2. But because the constitution requires that the final budget proposal sit for 72 hours before a vote takes place, Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said an agreement is likely needed to be reached by next Tuesday.

A tax-and-fee cut package of $500 million, also sought by Gov. Rick Scott, has been agreed-on, although details of about $100 million worth of givebacks still must be settled. Public school dollars are close, with a per-pupil increase of about 3 percent likely.

But spending on dozens of hometown projects and big-ticket environmental proposals like Everglades restoration, waterway and springs cleanup loom as some of the biggest differences between the two sides.

The House and Senate approved dueling budgets earlier this month that now must be reconciled.  Both sides topped 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.

House Republicans turn back Dem attempts to scuttle charter school bill

Monday, April 21st, 2014 by John Kennedy

House Republicans beat back efforts Monday by Democrats looking to scuttle a proposal that would further fuel the already explosive growth of charter schools in Florida.

The legislation (CS/HB 7083) is opposed by Palm Beach County and other school districts. It would make it easier for “high-performing” charter school companies operating out-of-state to enter Florida.

The measure also would require school districts statewide to use a standard contract, which districts say will hurt their ability to negotiate with charter school boards.  It likely faces a final House vote today.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, earlier promised a “massive expansion” of school choice options this spring. But so far, fellow Republicans in the Florida Senate have proved a hurdle, rejecting key provisions of the
charter school bill and another to expand private-school vouchers.

“I do understand that we have two chambers in this building,” said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, sponsor of both efforts. “Our bill is going to be a little different than theirs.”

With the Legislature opening its final scheduled two weeks, the fate of the charter bill, voucher effort and another House-backed, but Senate-rejected proposal to grant in-state college and university tuition to children of undocumented immigrants, will all be likely tied to wide-ranging negotiations between the two sides.

Charlotte’s Web marijuana bill reignited in the House

Monday, April 21st, 2014 by John Kennedy

The House jump-started legislation Monday aimed at decriminalizing the possession of low-grade marijuana for use in treating seizures.

The measure has been languishing since shortly after major Republican donor Mel Sembler, an opponent of softening marijuana laws, poured $100,000 into starting a Drug Free Florida political spending committee last month. But the Judiciary Committees’ 15-3 vote in favor of CS/HB 843) positions the so-called Charlotte’s Web legislation for action by the full House in the session’s closing two weeks.

“The effectiveness of this strain of marijuana is hard to debate,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, sponsor of the measure.

The House panel revamped portions of the bill Monday, adding a requirement that the state’s Department of Health establish four organizations in Florida to dispense the low-grade pot. The department also would create the Office of Compassionate Use, to compile a registry of patients doctors consider eligible for being treated with the marijuana strain.

Judiciary Committee Chair Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, was among lawmakers voting against the measure, saying he feared it “was too edgy.”

Gaetz and many lawmakers have become advocates of Charlotte’s Web after hearing from parents of children with severe epilepsy have gained relief by treating them with a liquid form of marijuana rich in cannabidiol or CBD. 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.

The measure has gotten the blessing of Republican leaders in the Legislature, with many seeing it as potentially blunting a ballot measure in November that would go much further and legalize medical marijuana in Florida. Gaetz, however, told committee members Monday, “there is not a political objective associated with this bill.”

 

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

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