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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.

Abruzzo hits pause on revamp of local ethics panels, summit to follow

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

An effort to revamp how the Palm Beach County Ethics Commission and similar local panels operate will be postponed for a year while organizations which have dueled over the proposal take part in a planned August summit, Sen. Joe Abruzzo said Tuesday.

Abruzzo, sponsor of the ethics rewrite, will be joined Wednesday at a Capitol news conference by representatives of government watchdog groups and officials from the Palm Beach, Jacksonville and Miami-Dade County ethics panel.

The Wellington Democrat said legislation has advanced (SB 1474) and a similar House proposal (HB 1315) are on track for full votes in the two chambers. But lingering questions about the measures have prompted the call for a pause, Abruzzo said.

“I believe it is in the best interest of the people to hold the first-ever statewide summit on ethics reform within the communities,” Abruzzo said. He added that a goal would be to devise “policy that is unanimously supported,” for next year’s session.

Palm Beach County officials initially fought Abruzzo’s proposal, but came around to support the latest version of the plan. Jacksonville and Miami-Dade, however, still questioned some provisions, and had been joined by Integrity Florida, the Florida League of Women Voters, and other groups in urging more work on the proposal.

“The commissions and organizations appear to agree that reform is needed, specifically in the area of due process where one board is not the investigator, prosecutor, jury, judge, appellate court, and clerk of the courts,” Abruzzo said. “This will be the premise of the summit.”

Palm Beach County ethics officials had feared Abruzzo’s bill would strip them of much of their authority. But a later revision softened those concerns, requiring local commissions to give those accused of violations an option of having their guilt decided by an entity other than the ethics commission.

Palm Beach County’s ethics commission currently reviews complaints to determine whether probable cause exists to conduct a hearing. If a formal hearing is held, the commission is also responsible for determining whether the person involved is guilty of violating the county’s ethics rules.

 

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.

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 tightening oversight of summer camp employees advances in Senate

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A measure aimed at tightening state oversight of summer camp employees, inspired by a 2012 Palm Beach Post series on abuses in the current system, cleared a Senate panel Tuesday.

The bill (SB 1424) by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, was approved by the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. It would authorize the state’s Department of Children & Families to create a statewide database containing names of summer camp personnel, who have cleared a state-required criminal background check.

The proposal follows a Post investigation that found convicted child molesters and other felons had worked at or owned summer camps throughout the state. Clemens and Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, have since been pushing to pass a law requiring the statewide registry of summer camps.

DCF took early steps at creating a database last year, but apparently could not proceed without further authorization by the Legislature.

In the past. legislative leaders, including House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said the burden should be on parents – and not the state — to ensure that camp operators are conducting the background checks. Some Republican lawmakers also balked at an earlier $3 million price tag analysts said would be associated with creating the registry. It was unclear Tuesday whether that cost endured under the current proposal.

The action Tuesday was the bill’s first hearing in either the House or Senate.

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.

Gambling expansion “not in the cards,” Senate told

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Senate Gaming Chairman Garrett Richter addressed the Senate Thursday, telling his colleagues that proposals to revamp gambling in Florida are dead for this session.

Although the session has just passed its midpoint, Richter said what had become increasingly clear: There are just too many moving parts to the issue.

“Comprehensive reform is not in the cards this session,” Richter, R-Naples, told the Senate.

In an election year, keeping alive prospects for opening new casino resorts in South Florida, additional card rooms at pari-mutuel facilities, and other sweeteners, has been a surefire way to assure that campaign contributions flow from gambling companies to lawmakers and the state’s political parties.

But central to any idea is Gov. Rick Scott reaching agreement on renewing the Seminole Tribe compact that is set to expire next year. Scott has been talking to the tribe. But the status of the talks have been closely guarded.

Richter fed into that murkiness Thursday.

“We can reasonable expect an agreement soon,” Richter said, although not offering any further details.

But for now, all bets are off.

“This is nothing that’s going to be accomplished by one committee in one session,” said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, vice-chair of the Senate’s gambling plan.

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.

 

Senate panel wants 4-year degrees put on hold at state colleges

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Florida Senate budget-writers agreed Thursday to end a decade-long trend of expanding bachelor’s degree options at state colleges, saying the programs have proliferated and the current system no longer works.

Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said lawmakers were only pushing the “pause button” to take stock of how the college and university systems interlock. Under the legislation (CS/SB 1148), only the 175 four-year degree programs now in place at the 25 colleges offering them would continue.

The state Board of Education would be barred from offering any new B.A. degree programs until the Legislature decides differently.

“The Legislature is not getting in the business of deciding who gets a bachelor’s degree program,” Negron said. “We’re just saying we’re going to take a breath.”

The measure cleared the Appropriations Committee 18-1, with Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the lone opponent.

“Why should we be shutting the door on higher education?” Latvala said.

The Senate’s push for reining in college degree programs would be a major change of course in Florida and redirect a wave that began with St. Petersburg College offering the first bachelor’s degree programs in 2001 in nursing, education and information technology.

Since then, driven by state lawmakers and Florida’s largest business associations demanding a better trained workforce, 25 of the state’s 28 colleges have begun offering bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees.

Bachelor’s programs are now offered across Florida colleges, largely in career-oriented fields such as nursing, teaching, supply chain management and industrial logistics. Negron, though, pointed out that at least one school is offering degrees in biology, accounting and public administration — which puts them “into the lane of universities.”

Negron said it was time for lawmakers to reassess the trend, given the demands put on higher education spending.

Palm Beach State College offers three bachelor’s degrees, according to state education officials: in nursing, supervision and management, and information management.

St. Johns River State College President Joe Pickens, a former House member, told the committee that he understood its concerns, hinting that the push-back from lawmakers stems from missteps by some colleges.

“There is a failure to communicate,” Pickens said. “I hear you…you’ve got my attention.”

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