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Scott’s reelection story gets another chapter in latest TV spot

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott's latest TV ad looks back on his Navy days

Gov. Rick Scott Wednesday launched the second installment of the bi0-pic approach his campaign is using to reintroduce him to Florida voters.

Like his opening TV ad, the newest 30-second spot airing statewide reflects on multimillionaire’s hardscrabble growing up. The ad reflects on his years right out of high school, when he served in the U.S. Navy and later went to college on the G.I. Bill before starting his first business.

Scott’s late mother, Esther, a fixture in his 2010 campaign, also is featured in the spot. She died in late 2012.

“You know, everyone deserves the dignity and the opportunity that comes with a good job,” Scott tells viewers. “That’s what I work on every day.”

Here’s the ad:   bit.ly/1jLhcCN

 

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.”

First Amendment Foundation urges Scott veto of warning shot bill

Monday, April 14th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A measure that would allow Floridians to fire a warning shot in self-defense should be vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott because it also closes key criminal records from public oversight, the First Amendment Foundation said Monday.

The foundation, which is financed by Florida news organizations, wrote Scott urging that he veto the legislation (CS/HB 89) he is expected to act on this week.

The bill would give those who threaten to use a firearm in self-defense or fire a warning shot instead of fleeing a dangerous situation the same legal safeguards that the state’s “stand your ground” law gives to people who use deadly force to defend themselves.

The 2005 stand your ground provision is opposed by minority groups which claim it has been used to justify violence against black youth.

The press organization, however, addresses the provision that allows people cleared by judges because they acted in self-defense to petition courts to have their records expunged.

Barbara Petersen, foundation president, told Scott that could “serve as a tool for obscuring law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct, while also hindering the development of court precedence essential to understanding how and when the proposed use of force applies.”

When the bill cleared the Senate earlier this month, Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, a former sheriff, defended the expungement section. “An innocent person is innocent,” Dean told the Senate. “You shouldn’t have to defend your name for the rest of your life.”

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.

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.”

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.

Bill signing or pep rally, Scott signs auto fee cut into law

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Motorist fee cut by Gov. Rick Scott freighted with election-year politics

In an event with overtones of a campaign pep-rally, Rick Scott signed into law Wednesday legislation rolling back motorist fees by almost $400 million, reversing a 2009 increase the governor tied to his predecessor and likely re-election opponent, Charlie Crist.

Scott, who made the fee-cut the top item on his wish list to lawmakers this spring, blamed Crist for the “tax increase” and said the bill would “right the wrong” of the hike.

The legislation will save motorists between $20 and $25, depending on the size of their vehicles. The fee hikes were signed into law by Crist in 2009, part of a $2.2 billion package of tax and fee increases designed to plug holes in a recession-strapped state budget.

Joining Scott at the bill-signing were House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and leaders of three statewide business associations, whose statements all pivoted around crediting the governor for re-igniting the state’s economy.

While all found a way to condemn the fee hike, most critics have a checkered history with the boost. Scott’s own lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, was a House member who, like all but one Republican member of the Legislature, voted for the tax-and-fee increases that year. But on Wednesday, he called it “just another burden approved by the previous administration.”

Senate Democrats in 2009 supported the fee increase, but seven — including Nan Rich, Crist’s rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination — later voted against the budget. All 43 House Democrats that year voted against the fee increase.

“It’s about time,” Crist said of Scott’s bill-signing. “When these fees were passed by Rick Scott’s colleagues and signed into law they were never meant to be permanent. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for Governor Scott to realize that it’s time to roll these fees back – better late than never.”

Scott, though, defended his timing.

“We’ve been turning around our economy,” Scott said. “Look at the investments we’ve made in education: A billion-dollars two years in a row, we gave the teachers an opportunity for a pay raise last year, and we continue to fund education this year…look at the money we’re putting into the environment….transportation. This state is heading in the right direction. There’s still more work to do every day.”

The legislation (CS/SB 156) reduces many of the myriad of fees Floridians face when registering a vehicle or motor home, or seek duplicate documents or transfers. The changes would take effect Sept. 1, and would remove $309 million from the state treasury next year and $395 million-a-year after that.

With election looming, Republicans rally around in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 by John Kennedy

Florida Senate Republicans rallied Tuesday around a proposal that would grant in-state tuition to children of undocumented immigrants, risking the wrath of tea party conservatives in a bid to woo Hispanic voters to their side this election year.

The Judiciary Committee approved the measure (SB 1400) on a 7-2 vote. The House last month OK’d similar legislation with the support of Democrats and more than half the Republican caucus, with House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel spearheading the change.

The Senate still looms as a wild card. But sponsor Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said after Tuesday’s vote, ”We’ve still got a ways to go. But I feel very good about this.”

While differences remain, Latvala said he will propose recasting the Senate version so it matches the House proposal. That would require that students complete four years of high school in Florida — up from a three-year standard that remains in the Senate proposal.

Other provisions of the bill eliminate an annual cost-of-living increase which currently can boost tuition even when the Legislature and colleges and universities seek to hold the line. While the Senate proposal also would erase the ability of state universities to increase tuition by as much as 15 percent annually, Latvala said he plans to go along with the House approach that rolls that potential hike back to a maximum of six percent.

The measure also would assure that undocumented students are “residents for tuition purposes,” making them ineligible for state-financed scholarships. Students could pay the in-state rate if they enroll in a Florida college or university within two years of graduating from secondary school. Average nonresident tuition is $21,434 annually, compared with the in-state average of $6,318.

While Gov. Rick Scott supports the proposal, testimony Tuesday before the Senate panel showed how divisive the proposal remains within the state GOP.

James Calkins, a Republican activist from Santa Rosa County, urged Senate Republicans to oppose the legislation, saying it would “clearly damage our get-out-the-vote effort for 2014.”

“The issue will divide the Republican Party at a time when the party needs to stay united,” Calkins said.

Similar legislation has been around since at least 2001 — promoted chiefly by Miami-Dade County Republicans and most Democrats.

But Florida’s shifting demographics have caught the attention of strategists for both parties. With a bruising governor’s race underway, the tuition bill may emerge as a GOP peace offering to Hispanics, increasingly siding with Democratic candidates.

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.

Restore Justice leader looks to unseat Central Florida Democrat

Monday, March 31st, 2014 by John Kennedy

A Central Florida man who led an unsuccessful effort to unseat the last three Florida Supreme Court justices appointed by a Democratic governor announced Monday that he is running as a Republican for an Orlando-area House seat.

Jesse Phillips, a health care technology director, is challenging Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, who made history in 2012 when he and newly elected Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, became the first openly gay members of the Florida Legislature.

Phillips led Restore Justice 2012, which sought to defeat Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince in that year’s merit retention elections. Phillips’ campaign was supported by the Florida Republican Party, but the justices and their allies spent $5 million on a campaign that led to their easily winning new six-year terms.

Florida’s spending was third highest in the nation, according to the analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which studied election spending on courts.

The district Phillips is running in is one of Florida’s youngest, including eastern Orange County and containing the University of Central Florida, Valencia Community College East and Full Sail University.

“The time-tested principals of limited government and personal responsibility, while being in sharp contrast to the Democrats’ failed policies, will move Florida forward and improve the lives of its diverse citizens,” Phillips said.

The three justices targeted last fall were appointed by late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, with Quince named jointly with former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

Unseating them would have given Gov. Rick Scott a chance to appoint their successors, assuring that all seven Florida Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republican governors.

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.

 

Democrats chide Scott even after state drops plans for voter purge

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Gov. Rick Scott administration’s decision Thursday to drop a controversial plan to remove noncitizens and other ineligible voters from state rolls drew revived attacks from Democrats who had long opposed the effort dubbed Project Integrity.

“This was a mistake from the beginning, and part of a pattern of throwing up roadblocks for Floridians attempting to hold government accountable,” said Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor turned Democrat, who is Scott’s leading re-election rival.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant said, “”While this move is clearly an act of damage-control from a campaign in chaos, this represents a major victory for the people of Florida who have suffered so many voter suppression efforts under the Rick Scott administration.”

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said Thursday that he was delaying plans to conduct the voter review before this year’s election because of technical issues  involving the U.S. Department of Homeland Security SAVE list — the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements.

Minority organizations and voter rights groups for months have been urging Scott’s office to drop the review, accusing the governor of trying to shed black- and Hispanic-voters from state rolls.

Detzner, though, said the decision was only made after Homeland Security officials began revamping the data base in an effort not expected to be finished until next year.

 

 

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.”

Senate approves toughening state hit-and-run law

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Senate would toughen hit-and-run laws

The Florida Senate agreed Wednesday to toughen penalties for hit-and-run drivers by ending what officials say is a gap in state law that gives drunk drivers an incentive to flee accident scenes.

The 39-0 vote would create the “Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act,” named after a Miami man killed while bicycling on the Rickenbacker Causeway in 2012.

The driver who fatally struck Cohen, Michele Traverso was sentenced to less than a year in jail despite having driven illegally and being on probation for cocaine charges. Cohen was killed after Traverso had spent the night partying at a Coconut Grove bar.

Traverso, though, didn’t turn himself into police until 18 hours after the accident, eliminating any chance that he could be checked for DUI and risk facing the tougher, four-year sentence.

“If you are driving under the influence, there is an incentive to flee right now,” said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, sponsor of the measure (CS/SB 102).

The legislation, which still must clear the House, would create a four-year, minimum-mandatory prison sentence for anyone leaving the scene of an accident involving a death. It would match the current penalty for DUI involving a death.

Supporters of the legislation said that making the penalty for fleeing the scene the same as a DUI fatality might prompt motorists to stick around and call for help, providing aid that can be critical.

The Florida Highway Patrol said in 2012, an average of three people a week were killed on state roadways by a hit-and-run driver. Palm Beach County had more than 3,500 hit-and-run crashes that year.

On one day last December, three hit-and-run accidents left at least five people injured and led to three arrests in the county.

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