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$100K contribution among roadblocks on path to Charlotte’s Web

Monday, April 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Senate approved legislation Monday authorizing the use of a marijuana strain for treating victims of severe epilepsy, with several families and children suffering from the illness looked on from the gallery.

The so-called Charlotte’s Web legislation has drawn the blessing of Republican leaders in the Legislature but still faces an uncertain outcome as lawmakers lurch toward a scheduled Friday adjournment.

Some Republican leaders see it as potentially dulling support for a November ballot measure that would go further and legalize medical marijuana.

But the measure has become troubled since major Republican donor Mel Sembler, an opponent of softening marijuana laws, opened a political spending committee called Drug Free Florida with a $100,000 donation last month.

Soon after, Gov. Rick Scott’s Surgeon General, John Armstrong, testified before a House committee raising concerns with the legislation.

Some senators Monday traced their personal histories with the legislation, saying they came around to backing the proposal (CS/SB 1030) only after meeting with the parents seeking help for children with Dravet Syndrome, a severe epilepsy which affects 125,000 Florida youngsters.

The Senate approved authorizing doctors to prescribe the marijuana strain on a 36-3 vote.

“This is it,” said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach. “These folks are at the end of the line. We’re just trying to bring hope to these families.”

Amid a flurry of hometown spending, budget deal done

Monday, April 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The final touches to a roughly $75 billion state budget were settled Monday by House and Senate negotiators, clearing the way for an on-time finish this week to the 2014 Legislature.

A $1.2 billion surplus from the state’s improving economy eased spending decisions by budget-writers as they raced toward Friday’s session-end deadline.

But the extra cash also allowed lawmakers to steer millions of state dollars toward hometown projects – for arts programs, social services, water projects and college buildings. Many likely face the threat of Gov. Rick Scott’s veto pen.

“The budget isn’t about numbers, it’s about values and priorities,” said Senate Budget Chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, telegraphing a theme lawmakers will likely use in urging Scott to go light on vetoes this election year.

Negron and his House counterpart, Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, worked through the weekend settling a host of education, health care, transportation and environmental issues that had divided the two sides.

Among the last issues settled Monday were spending for college and university construction and almost $74 million scattered across some 200 water projects across the state.

In the mix, $6 million for Palm Beach State College’s long-sought Loxahatchee Groves campus – vetoed three times in recent years by Scott and his predecessor, Gov. Charlie Crist – and several wastewater projects in Belle Glade, Riviera Beach and Royal Palm Beach.

House OK’s having a safety officer pack gun to thwart school violence

Monday, April 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

In a partyline vote, the House agreed Monday to let school boards assign a trained official to pack a gun at schools to improve campus safety.

Ruling Republicans rallied around the measure (CS/HB 753) which still has to clear the Senate. Democrats challenged the proposal, saying it could prove more risky to add guns to school grounds.

Representatives for the Florida School Board Association and Parent Teacher Association also have opposed the bill.

Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, sponsor of the bill, disagreed.

“This gives local school boards the opportunity to make sure that our students are safe,” Steube told the House.

He said a federal study has shown that most school violence spasms out in less than 15 minutes. That makes it unlikely that calling police to the scene will stop a gunman.

The bill  gives schools the option to appoint former or current law enforcement officers and former or current military personnel to carry firearms on campus. They would have to undergo background screening and go through 40 hours of school-safety training and eight hours of active-shooter training each year. The safety officers also would need to complet four hours of firearms qualification annually.

They’d also have to have a state concealed weapon permit.

Senate approves local pension overhaul facing uncertain future in House

Monday, April 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Florida Senate set itself on a collision course Monday by approving a proposal overhauling local police and fire pensions but ignoring a more sweeping plan that cleared the House last week.

The Senate approach (CS/SB 246) give cities a chance to use the state’s insurance premium tax to bolster police and fire pension funds.

With the support of police and fire unions, the bill relaxes a 1999 law that required cities to offer only new benefits with these tax dollars, a move that analysts say has contributed to many funds now becoming financially troubled.

“This is one of the great crises facing Florida,” said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who has been working four years on trying to forge a consensus on local pensions.

The House, however, has merged a similar pension bill with a larger change to the Florida Retirement System. The FRS rewrite has little support in the Senate, and the House tactic is clearly aimed at trying to muscle senators into accepting it if they want to repair local pensions.

Ring acknowledged that in the session’s closing week, it’s difficult to predict the local pension bill’s fate. But he said it is poised to improve retirement accounts across Florida.

“If and when this bill passes, we won’t be involved in local pensions again,” Ring assured senators.

The Leroy Collins Institute at Florida State University has studied the state’ municipal pensions, sounding alarms about the financial health of many plans.

Those drawing low marks in the 2011 review, included Boynton Beach’s police plan and Palm Beach Gardens’ police and fire plans – while West Palm Beach’s police pension was named among the best-funded in the state.

The study concluded that the municipal pension slide began in the early 2000s, well before the recession. The timing is close to when Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-led Legislature approved changes which improved city police and fire pensions.

The law was effectively a payback for unions which endorsed Bush over Democrat Buddy MacKay in the 1998 governor’s race.

With a late-night huddle, House, Senate all but button-up budget talks

Monday, April 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The House and Senate all-but buttoned up a roughly $75 billion state budget late Sunday night, but still face another day of haggling over language that will implement the 2014-15 spending plan.

House Budget Chief Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, and Senate counterpart Joe Negron, R-Stuart, took part in public meetings twice Sunday — the last gaveled in shortly after 11 p.m. Agreements covered a range of education, health care and environmental issues that had been separating the two sides.

In one of the biggest budget areas — public school spending — lawmakers settled on a 2.6 percent per-pupil increase for Florida’s 2.7 million school kids. That should boost spending by about $175 per-student to around $6,935, still below the state’s pre-recession level of $7,126 reached in 2007-08.

The funding level is less than what the House originally proposed — at 3 percent, but about where the Senate originally recommended. Both sides beat Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed 2.5 percent increase.

With a budget surplus of $1.2 billion, spending decisions were made easier. But lawmakers are still racing toward a Tuesday deadline of having the final budget before lawmakers so a constitutionally required 72-hour waiting period can pass before a vote Friday, the session’s last scheduled day.

Other deals Sunday included the House going along with the Senate on the bulk of environmental spending, including $47 million for beach restoration,$73.9 million for hometown water projects and $22.8 million for springs preservation work, less than half the $55 million sought by Scott.

$10 million for quiet zones cash tucked into state spending plan

Sunday, April 27th, 2014 by John Kennedy

House budget chief Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, and his Senate counterpart, Joe Negron, R-Stuart, huddle before Sunday conference meeting.

House and Senate budget negotiators agreed Sunday to create a $10 million grant program to pay for railroad crossing upgrades needed in Palm Beach County and elsewhere in anticipation of the passenger rail project All Aboard Florida.

The Senate earlier proposed the spending for the so-called quiet zones. But its fate was uncertain until Sunday when the House signed-off on the plan amid talks aimed at settling a $75 billion state budget for 2014-15.

Elected officials from throughout the coastal areas of Palm Beach County, working largely through the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization, had asked the state for help the work needed.

The express private service would run from Miami to Orlando with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. But the added 32 trains a day have residents and business owners near the Florida East Coast Railroad tracks worried about noise, traffic congestion and boating delays.

The $2.5 billion rail project – whose price tag recently spiked – is already controversial.

While the quiet zone provision was tucked into the Senate budget by Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, Senate Budget Chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, on Sunday reiterated that the spending should not be taken as support for the project.

“I haven’t come around to that,” Negron said. “There’s support in the Legislature for quiet zones so there’s money…but it’s not money I personally advocated for. There is agreement on the amount.”

Talk of special session on Seminole compact complicates homestretch

Friday, April 25th, 2014 by John Kennedy

With the 2014 Legislature entering its final week, Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has been floating the idea of a special session next month to renew the gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe that is slated to end next year.

The renewed compact would likely include more money for the state — and could bolster the governor’s leadership credentials heading into his re-election campaign against likely Democratic rival Charlie Crist who as Republican governor from 2007-11, signed the current compact.

But a hurry-up session is complicated.

For those supporting expanded gambling, it presents little chance of putting into play sweeteners for the state’s financially struggling pari-mutuel sites, or making a case for Genting Group, the Malaysian gaming giant looking to open resort casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Scott’s office, though, sought to quash the special session talk Friday night.

“There is no deal, and without a deal, there cannot be any decision on how to ratify a deal,” said Scott spokesman Frank Collins.

Still, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, acknowledged that he had spoken with Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantero about compact negotiations, but that a special session wasn’t discussed.

“They were getting very close. He was kind of updating us on the progress. There were no specifics talked about,” Weatherford said.

The speaker said he responded, “When you have a deal, let us know what it is. We’d love to look at it and we’ll tell you what we think.”

Weatherford earlier talked of possibly considering a gambling expansion during the current legislative session. But it was hinged on a Seminole compact being crafted that allowed such expansion. He also envisioned next putting a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that could limit further gambling in Florida.

“I’ve always been a proponent of reducing the amount of gaming in Florida, not expanding it,” Weatherford said. “I don’t know if this compact reduces or expands it.”

House Democrats said Scott’s office hasn’t contacted them. And they vowed to block any compact that focuses solely on the tribe and not pari-mutuels, card rooms and casino resorts.

“The idea about the compact coming back is it should give the Legislature the opportunity to address those things,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

Asked if Democratic votes were needed to seal a compact, House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale said, “Without a doubt.”

 

House compensation bill OK’d; “Will help Florida heal”

Friday, April 25th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The House unanimously approved a measure Friday that would make a former farmworker eligible for state compensation after he was wrongfully accused of killing his seven children and spent more than two decades behind bars.

James Richardson, now 77, lived in Arcadia when a few days before Halloween 1967, he was accused of poisoning his children when they came home for lunch. He was quickly convicted and condemned to death.

But a 1989 investigation ordered by then-Gov. Bob Martinez revealed wholesale misconduct by investigators and prosecutors, leading to Richardson being set free. Still, because of the circumstances of his case, Richardson does not qualify for state payment under the state’s five-year-old wrongful incarceration law.

The legislation (CS/HB 227) approved 116-0 Friday would make Richardson eligible for $1.2 million in compensation. The bill still has to clear the Senate.

“You will help Mr. Richardson heal, and you will help Florida heal,” said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, sponsor of the House bill.

The legislation had been stalled in the House. But Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus appealed to House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, to advance the measure, which Kerner said proved pivotal.

“I hope this helps us turn the corner in Florida’s history,” Kerner said.

House OK’s mashup of state and local pension plan rewrites

Friday, April 25th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A sweeping overhaul of state and local pension plans was approved 74-44 Friday by the state House, but faces long odds of clearing a Senate showing little support for changing the Florida Retirement System.

The House has mashed-up two proposals — a generally popular bill which makes changes to municipal police and fire pensions, and a controversial FRS revamp. House Republican leaders are clearly trying to get the Senate to accept the FRS change as the only way to enact the local pension change.

House Democrats blasted the tactic — and the FRS move.

“The bill is a patchwork of ideas and should be voted down,” said Rep. Carl Zimmerman, D-Palm Harbor.

But Republicans defended the move.

“This bill is about the future,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, noting the FRS change will only effect new hires. “This bill keeps the promise, but it secures the future.”

The FRS proposal is aimed at reducing the number of government workers joining the state’s traditional pension – pushing more into a 401(k)-style investment plan that is cheaper for the state to offer.

Over fierce opposition from public employees’ unions, House Republicans have been intent on overhauling the $144 billion FRS, used by 622,000 government workers and another 300,000 retirees. The largest share of those covered are teachers and county school board employees.

But enough Senate Republicans have refused to go along with earlier proposals that House leaders are now turning to a new approach.

Under the House bill, everyone hired in the elected officer or senior manager category beginning in July 2015 could only join the investment plan. All employees who fail to select a plan eight months after being hired would be put into the investment plan, not the pension as current law allows.

The measure also would increase the pension vesting period for all new employees to 10 years, up from the current 8-year standard.

The local proposal gives cities more flexibility to use the state’s insurance premium tax to bolster police and fire pension funds. The bill relaxes a 1999 law that required cities to offer new benefits with insurance tax dollars, a move that has increasingly destabilized many funds.

In a rare moment of harmony, after years of hostility over changing the 1999 law, unions and local governments have agreed on the police and fire pension change that is advancing as a stand-alone bill in the Senate.

Two decades wrongfully behind bars, an old man moves closer to state payment

Friday, April 25th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A former farmworker convicted but later cleared of killing his seven children in DeSoto County in 1967 could become eligible for more than$1 million in state compensation, under a measure poised for final approval in the state House.

James Richardson spent more than 20 years in prison –including four years on Death Row – before being released in 1989 after an investigation revealed wide-ranging misconduct by investigators and prosecutors. He is now age 77 and in frail health, living in Wichita, Kansas.

Although Richardson is currently disqualified, the measure(HB 227) by Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, would make him eligible for payment under the state’s 2009 wrongful incarceration law. Kerner said the move is needed to reverse a “legacy of injustice.”

The legislation earned preliminary approval Thursday in the House. The Senate is expected to consider a similar measure (CS/SB 326) next week.

 

Pit bull-Chihuahua pension mix springs to life in House

Thursday, April 24th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The House tentatively approved a proposal one Democrat earlier condemned as “marrying a pit bull and a Chihuahua,” a combination that would rewrite the Florida Retirement System and local police and fire pensions.

Over fierce opposition from public employees’ unions, House Republicans have been intent on overhauling the $144 billion FRS, used by 622,000 government workers. But enough Senate Republicans have refused to go along with earlier pitches that House leaders are now turning to a new approach.

The House Thursday combined the FRS overhaul with another, more popular move that applies new standards to the local government plans. The city proposal has been hammered out after several years of off-and-on talks between police and fire unions and municipal officials.

Democrats see the approach as a desperate effort to force the Senate’s hand. Rep. Dwyane Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, last week likened it to unorthodox dog breeding.

Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, sponsor of the dual proposal (CS/HB 7181), defended it.

“The common thread is public pensions,” Boyd told House Democrats, who peppered him with questions Thursday. “We feel the best course of action is to combine two bills into one.”

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.

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.”

 

Scott Facebook townhall features unfriend-ly swipes at Crist

Thursday, April 17th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott takes part in a Facebook townhall from Jacksonville.

Gov. Rick Scott hosted a Facebook townhall Thursday evening from Jacksonville, fielding one question about Charlie Crist while also managing to take a couple swipes at his Democratic rival.

Asked about Crist’s “Gimme Scott” comment this week at a Forum Club meeting in West Palm Beach, Scott shrugged off the challenge. Instead, Scott hinted that Crist shouldn’t look too far past his likely Democratic primary opponent, Nan Rich.

“That’s laughable,” Scott posted. “He has a primary and I’m sure it’s going to be enjoyable watching his debates with Nan Rich.”

But Scott also kept his focus on Crist when another Facebook friend asked if Floridians could face higher taxes if they failed to have health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare.

“Charlie Crist thinks Obamacare is ‘great,’” Scott responded. “I don’t because people are losing their insurance, their doctors and their jobs because of this failed law.

Scott also vowed to hold the line on college and university tuition this year. Unlike, he pointed out, Crist, who as Republican governor from 2007-11, endorsed a law which allowed tuition to climb 15 percent annually.

“We are working to stop the 15% annual increase in tuition plus inflationary increase in tuition passed by Charlie Crist. Call your state legislators and let them know this is important,” Scott told his online audience.

But just as in previous Facebook townhalls, Scott chose to avoid a few questions, too. Several questions went unanswered about why he hasn’t pushed to expand Medicaid to cover some of Florida’s 4 million without health insurance.

Another question challenging Florida for still planning to implement Common Core Standards in classrooms got a less than direct answer from Scott.

“There are two things important to me, one, high standards for Florida students are not negotiable; and two we must prevent the federal government’s overreach into our education system,” he said.

 

 

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