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Florida elections package passes first committee

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Elections supervisors would be able to hold early voting from eight to 14 days for up to 12 hours per day and have a broader array of early voting sites under a proposal unanimously approved by the House Ethics and Elections Committee this morning.

The plan also would impose a 75-word limit on the constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the legislature but only for the first attempt. The full text of amendments struck down by the court and rewritten by the attorney general would be allowed.

The changes are the legislature’s attempt to do away with the long early voting and Election Day lines that once again cast an unwelcome national spotlight on Florida’s fall elections. The proposal mirrors the supervisors of elections’ legislative wish-list, also backed by Secretary of State Ken Detzner, and a yet-to-be-released proposal from the state Senate.

The GOP-controlled legislature shrank the number of early voting days from 14 to eight in a sweeping 2011 bill (HB 1355), signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, the sponsor of HB 1355, said Wednesday morning the new plan should help fix some of the problems voters encountered in the 2012 elections but stopped short of saying his bill that shortened early voting was a mistake and that supervisors needed the full two weeks.

“They need something. And that’s what they asked for and said would help them. So we’re trying to be responsive. I think allowing them more discretion and more time is certainly part of the answer,” Baxley, R-Ocala, said after the vote.

Republicans have repeatedly pointed out that the long lines were isolated in just a handful of counties, including Palm Beach where some voters waited more than eight hours to cast their ballots.

Sonya Gibson, a West Palm Beach educator and activist with the left-leaning Florida New Majority, shared her voting experience with the committee Wednesday morning.

She said she waited about nine hours to vote at the Westgate Community Center before giving up and returning on Election Day with her three daughters, who also voted. She said they waited at the same location for nearly 10 hours on Election Day before casting their ballots.

Former GOP officials and consultants, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, said the 2011 law was designed to curb Democratic turnout after Obama’s Florida victory in 2008.

Gibson called the House measure a “face-saving” measure for Republican lawmakers but a good start.

“At this point, it is time to move forward,” she said. “It’s not anymore about who did what, who didn’t say what or who did say what. It’s about moving forward so you can get the best results for our fellow Floridians, so that we can be an example.”

House Democrats, who withdrew nine amendments to the bill, vowed to push to broaden the bill, including doing away with a requirement in 1355 that forced more voters to cast provisional ballots if they moved outside of the county. Provisional ballots have a greater chance of not being counted and take longer to process at the polls. But they, too, agreed the bill was a good starting point.

“The reality is that this bill ggoes a long way towards repairing the damage that 1355 caused. Democrats spoke extensively against 1355 because we anticipated the problems that actually occurred. This bill starts to remedy that situation,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, who does not serve on the committee but is one of House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston’s top lieutenants.

Lake Worth freshman Democrat sponsors first bill passed by committee in 2013 session

Thursday, January 17th, 2013 by Dara Kam

State Rep. Dave Kerner, a Democrat in a GOP-controlled legislature, was spared the typical freshman hazing and instead tapped to sponsor a bill aimed at cracking down on human trafficking, one of Attorney General Pam Bondi’s top priorities.

Kerner’s measure (PCB CRJS13-01) would bar massage parlors from operating between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and prohibit them from being used as a principle domicile, with some exceptions. Law enforcement officials have targeted massage parlors in some regions because they say some unscrupulous operators are using the storefronts as a cover for human trafficking or other illegal acts.

The House Criminal Justice Committee gave the measure a unanimous thumbs-up and forewent the typical freshman drubbing of first voting against the bill and then taking it back up for reconsideration and passing it. It’s the first bill passed by a legislative committee so far this year.

“It’s very, very personal to me,” Kerner said. A native of Lake Worth, Kerner said that more than 50 percent of the residents of District 87 which he represents are Hispanic and many of them are in the country illegally.

“They don’t vote. They don’t speak the language. It’s fertile ground for the human trafficking trade. They don’t reach out to law enforcement. They don’t have any contacts here. This is a big issue in my district. They ought to be protected by the state and it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I ma passionate about it. Because it goes on right her ein my district.”

Kerner, a Lake Worth lawyer and one-time Alachua police officer, said he was approached about sponsoring the bill by committee chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and also personally got the blessing of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. It’s unusual for a freshman Democrat to have the opportunity to sponsor a high-profile measure, Kerner quickly learned.

“The Speaker was more than willing to have that bipartisan effort. And I think that’s awesome,” Kerner said.

New House, Senate leaders take over

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, officially took the gavels in their respective chambers this morning, launching their two-year terms as presiding officers and welcoming a slew of newly elected lawmakers.

Weatherford’s ceremony had the added bonus of being led by former House Speaker Allan Bense, Weatherford’s father-in-law.

Both Weatherford and Gaetz gave speeches outlining their plans for the next two years.

Fifteen of the 40 senators are new to the chamber. Several of them – including Palm Beach County Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Joseph Abruzzo of Wellington – previously served in the state House.

Gaetz praised Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, and emphasized that the two parties have to work together, unlike lawmakers in Washington.

“You want to know who lost the 2012 election. Congress. Congress, both parties, has an approval rating of 11 percent. Muammar Gaddafi had an approval rating of 14 percent and his people killed him,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz said he and Weatherford agreed to make ethics reform a top priority.

“In my medium-sized north Florida county, a commissioner was just removed for official misconduct, the tourism director committed suicide after he stole bed tax and BP money, the Speaker of the House was forced to resign, the tax collector was run out of office, our college president was fired and our sheriff is in federal prison. That’s just my county,” said Gaetz, who lives in Okaloosa County.

And Gaetz also pledged to do something about the state’s prolonged election, certified this morning by Gov. Rick Scott and two other members of the Election Canvassing Commission, saying Florida is not a “third world country.”

“Floridians should never again have to stand in lines for six and seven hours to vote. Floridians should never again have to wonder if their ballots were miscoded or misprinted or miscounted. Floridians shouldn’t be embarrassed that while most counties in our state run flawless elections, some counties keep running flawed elections,” Gaetz said. “This isn’t a third world country. America shouldn’t have to wait for five days after the polls close to find out how Florida voted.”

House Dems select new leaders, too

Monday, November 19th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Rep. Perry Thurston officially took over as House Democratic Leader for the next two years in a ceremony in the Old Capitol, finalizing the minority caucus’s leadership switch before tomorrow’s organizational session.

Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, welcomed 24 new state representatives to the 44-member caucus, a five-seat gain in part due to newly-drawn legislative districts.

“I like to refer to us as…the heart and soul of the legislature,” Thurston said.

Echoing President Obama’s emphasis on the middle-class, Thurston said the outnumbered Democrats will continue as “the voice of opposition” but with new-found strength since breaking the GOP supermajority stronghold in the House as well as the Senate. If Democrats hold together, they would be able to block procedures or legislation that require a two-thirds vote, including proposed constitutional amendments.

Thurston said Democrats should take a lesson from the GOP to make their numbers even stronger.

“The way the other side did it, they did it by sticking together,” he said. “We’re going to be here and we’re going to be ready to fight.”

Speaking of the November election, Thurston said that Democrats predicted that a sweeping election law (HB 1355) passed last year would create problems.

“We understood it was going to be disastrous,” Thurston said. “That disastrous vote, with people standing in line eight, nine, ten hours, we argued against that. And we’re going to continue to advocate against issues that are going to affect our state.”

Thurston and his counterpart Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith are both black lawyers from Fort Lauderdale. Smith also served as the head of the House Democrats in 2005 and 2006.

Smith said the site of the ceremony, typically a brief event held on the House and Senate floors, was significant.

“We both decided to have our events here in the Old Capitol, a place that wouldn’t welcome us a few years ago. But now we’re both taking our leadership positions tonight in this building,” Smith said.

The House Dems also selected Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, as the leader pro tempore, and named other representatives to leadership positions, including Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, who is the caucus’s policy lead.

Skeptical judges hear arguments in Bernard appeal of Senate District 27 election

Thursday, October 18th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A three-judge panel appeared skeptical Thursday of state Rep. Mack Bernard’s appeal of a lower court decision affirming his Democratic opponent Jeff Clemens as the winner in a Palm Beach County state senate race.

Bernard appealed Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’s ruling that the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board was correct in rejecting 40 ballots in the District 27 race that Clemens won by 17 votes.

The canvassing board rejected the ballots because the signatures did not match the voters’ official signatures in the voter registration file, indicating they may have been fraudulent.

Representing Bernard, former state Rep. J.C. Planas argued during a hearing before the 1st District Court of Appeal on Thursday that Lewis should looked beyond just the signatures to determine whether the ballots were valid. Lewis rejected Planas’ request to introduce affidavits of the voters, many of whom are Haitian-American. Planas also said Thursday Lewis should have looked at the entire voter registration forms to determine whether the writing on the absentee ballots was made by the same person.

And, Planas argued, Lewis should have examined the ballots the canvassing board accepted as well as the ones they rejected to ensure that they were consistent.

But the three judges appeared unconvinced, saying that a new Florida law passed last year severely restricted Lewis’s ability to examine anything other than the signatures on the ballots and the signature in the voter registration file. The law was intended to limit protracted legal challenges over absentee ballots in elections.

“It’s almost like you’re asking us to rewrite the statute,” Judge Nikki Ann Clark said shortly after oral arguments began.
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Former House Speaker Tom Gustafson to replace Goodman in state House run against Hager

Friday, July 27th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Palm Beach County Democrats will pick former House Speaker Tom Gustafson to run for state House District 89 race incumbent against state Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, according to Palm Beach County Democratic party leader Mark Alan Siegel.

Gustafson, who represented Broward County in the House for more than a decade, will replace Pamela Goodman, who ended her campaign earlier this week because of her husband’s health problems.

The county Democratic Party executive committee will meet on Tuesday to officially make the selection, Siegel said.

Gustafson, a Wellington resident and the godfather of Tri-Rail, currently does not live in the Palm Beach County coastal district but said he’s had his Wellington house on the market for six months and had planned to move to the Boca Raton area before deciding to join the race.

Gustafson, 62, was elected to the Florida House in 1976 and served as speaker from 1988-1990 when Democrats controlled the legislature. His resume includes lengthy stints as a politician, lawyer and academic. Gustafson now serves as the director of research programs in the Finance and Administration Department at Florida International University but is retiring Tuesday, he said.

Gustafson specializes in community planning and transportation issues and was instrumental in the creation of Tri-Rail, which serves Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Gustafson said he wants to bring his multi-disciplinary expertise to Tallahassee again to help make the state a better place to live.

“The issues don’t change very much. They get updated. Things become more important one year than the next. But the rhythm stays the same,” Gustafson said. “The parties come and go in terms of who’s the majority. It changed before. It will change again. What is important is we have a state that needs attention. Politics is in the details. If you can work through the details with a focus and, in my case experience not only in politics but in the practice of law and academia, you can come up with good answers. And that’s what I hope to do.”

Democrats have targeted the District 89 race as one of their state priorities and were disappointed by the departure of Goodman, a former vice-president of the Florida League of Women Voters who had nearly universal support within the county.

Gustafson has been out of office for more than two decades and never represented Palm Beach County. Democratic operatives predicted Gustafson, who’s lived in Wellington for a decade but is well-known throughout the state, will be able to tap into resources far beyond the county to help fund the race against Hager, who has collected more than $100,000 for his reelection.

“I don’t think anyone except political aficionados will remember him but remember campaigns are about sharing and providing information,” Siegel said. “This is somebody who’s ready to hit the ground running.”

Future House Speaker Dorworth draws local GOP official in primary contest

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Rep. Chris Dorworth

Future House Speaker Chris Dorworth is facing a primary run-off against John Moffitt, the treasurer of the Republican Party of Seminole County.

John Moffitt

Moffitt filed his papers for the House District 29 seat yesterday, according to state Division of Elections records.

Reached by phone, Moffitt didn’t say why he launched a campaign against the powerful incumbent. But it’s an unusual move for a local party official to take on a future House Speaker.

“I’m not ready to make a statement at this time,” said Moffitt, whose message beneath his Twitter account (@johntheumpire) reads “Going to run for congress someday!” Like Dorworth, Moffitt lives in Lake Mary.

Dorworth, who’s collected more than $250,000 for his reelection effort, is scheduled to pick the gavel after incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford’s term ends in November 2014.

Maitland Democrat Michael Clelland is also listed as a candidate in the race.

ALEC quits gun policy, lefties want more

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012 by Dara Kam

It isn’t enough that the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has backed down from Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law after spreading it around the country, some left-leaning groups say.

Now they want lawmakers to quit the group as well. Progress Florida has launched a statewide campaign urging its supporters to tell legislators to “disavow the group’s extremist and secretive influence on Florida law making.” Other national groups are urging state lawmakers and more businesses to do the same.

ALEC – the business-backed organization that provides prepackaged bills for lawmakers, many of which have been used by the GOP-dominated Florida legislature – yesterday announced it was discontinuing its “Public Safety” and “Elections” task forces that promoted controversial measures including “Stand Your Ground” and voter ID laws that critics say make it harder for minorities to cast their ballots.

The move came after at least 10 corporations refused to renew their memberships in ALEC, a decades-old organization relatively unknown until the Trayvon Martin shooting thrust ALEC into the national spotlight.

Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman claimed he shot the unarmed teenager in self-defense. Florida’s first-in-the-nation, 2005 law allows people to use deadly force when they feel threatened. ALEC pushed Florida’s NRA-backed bill, and about two dozen states have adopted similar laws.

Progress Florida as well as national groups, including Common Cause, complain that the corporations behind ALEC are crafting the model bills then sponsored by state lawmakers.

For example, state Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, earlier this year sponsored a memorial urging Congress to cut the federal corporate tax rate.

But the proposal’s first “whereas” clause mistakenly revealed the source of the bill language.

“WHEREAS, it is the mission of the American Legislative Exchange Council to advance Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty,” Burgin’s memorial reads.

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House approves compromise PIP package

Friday, March 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The House has signed off on a last-ditch effort to close out a deal with the Senate on personal injury protection reform, one of Gov. Rick Scott’s top priorities.

But despite frenzied lobbying by insurance company representatives and Scott, it remains unclear whether the deal has enough support in the Senate to get the 21 votes needed to pass. Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater have made PIP fraud one of their primary focuses of the legislative session.

The compromise, passed with a party-line 80-34 vote late this evening, would require patients to seek care within two weeks of a crash, a concession from the House’s original seven day requirement.

The House also agreed to allow up to $10,000 for emergency service coverage as determined by a physician, osteopath, dentist, physician’s assistant or registered nurse practitioner. Of that, $2,500 could be used for non-emergency medical care. Visits to chiropractors would be covered up to $2,500 for certain types of injuries, but would require a referral from one of the other health care providers for others. Acupuncturists and massage therapists would no longer be covered by PIP.

The deal also did away with the House’s original proposal that would have required initial care to take place only at a hospital or emergency room. Instead, injured patients would also be allowed to be seen by private physicians.

And the compromise would require insurance companies to notify claimants within 30 days if they suspect fraud, and gives another 60 days to investigate. One of the more controversial parts of the deal would require those whose claims are being investigated to submit to examinations under oath if their insurance companies ask.

And, in what could be a sticking point for the Senate, the deal would require insurers to roll back rates 10 percent by October and 25 percent by Jan. 1. 2014, or else give a “detailed explanation” to insurance regulators for why the rates were not reduced. The Senate had sought a 25 percent rate reduction.

House Democrats blasted the last-minute amendments, accusing the GOP sponsors of the measure (HB 119) of being pusillanimous and caving to insurance industry pressure, especially over the rate roll-back, which critics said has no teeth.

The measure includes no penalties for insurers who fail to meet the rate reductions, Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, objected.

“The fraudsters are the big insurance companies that wrote this amendment and that are continuing to say now, give us more profit and we’ll give you a Post-it note at the end of the day explaining why we can’t reduce rates,” Randolph said.

Insurance lobbyists huddled into the wee hours Friday morning crafting the measure and were back at it early the same day, with time running out to seal a deal with the Senate that Scott would approve.

With hours until the 60-day session was scheduled to end, Scott stepped up pressure on lawmakers, calling them and ordering them into his office. Scott also pleaded his case through the media with appearances on at least seven radio talk shows before 8:30 a.m. Friday morning.

Scott pushed lawmakers to “get it done” and threatened to call a special session if they did not pass a comprehensive PIP reform.

“If I had to I would (call a special session later on the issue) but there’s no reason we can’t get it done today,” Scott said on WFLA 540 AM in Orlando. “I’m very comfortable they’ll do the right thing.”

Scott’s advisors have said the House would not pass a package the governor did not approve.

“The House has some good provisions,” Scott said. He said he hoped they would “send it back to the Senate and I hope we get it passed today.”
- The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Beau Rivage to get swankier address, if Scott approves

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

About 560 folks living in a waterfront enclave with a Stuart address but who live in St. Lucie County will be able to decide if they want a swankier, Martin County address under a measure on its way to Gov. Rick Scott.

The Florida Senate unanimously gave final approval to the bill (SB 800) after the House tweaked the proposal yesterday. The measure will allow residents of Beau Rivage and neighboring communities to vote on whether they want to change the county boundary lines.

The plan has divided some residents in the enclave nestled along the North Fork, many of whom believe they already live in Martin County. They want to make sure neighborhood kids can continue to attend school in Martin County, a long practice but something St. Lucie County officials have indicated they may soon end.

If approved by voters, St. Lucie would gradually have to transfer 10 percent of the enclave’s tax base per year for a decade to Martin County, meaning St. Lucie could eventually lose up to $1.2 million annually after the 223 homes and some vacant lots — valued at nearly $60 million — are taken off the tax rolls.

The last time the legislature changed the county lines was in 2007 when part of southern Palm Beach County was annexed into Broward County.

Animal groups ask Scott to keep prohibition on pastel peeps, veto pink bunnies bill

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Animal rights groups are asking Gov. Rick Scott to veto a measure that would do away with a nearly 50-year old prohibition on dyeing animals.

Lawmakers passed the bill (HB 1197) this week over the objection of a handful of those who objected that the ban is needed to keep colored bunnies, chicks and ducklings from popping up in kids’ Easter baskets then abandoned months later when their cuteness wears off.

Senate bill sponsor Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said she filed the measure at the request of a pet groomer who wants to be able to dye dogs for competitions.

But PETA and the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida have sent action alert to their members and today asked Scott to use his red pen to kill the bill, saying coloring farm animals for Easter treats is a “death sentence” for the critters.

“Blue and pink bunnies and chicks may appeal to children, who will pester their parents to purchase them, but dyeing these small animals can be a death sentence for the animals as every humane agency in the country well knows,” PETA Vice President Daphna Nachminovich said in a press release. Read PETA’s letter to Scott here.

The abandoned animals will crowd the state’s already overburdened animal shelters, PETA argues.

UPDATE: Brody family lawyers, lobbyists agree to give up payment to get bill passed

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Fourteen years after he was critically injured after a Broward Sheriff’s deputy crashed into him, Eric Brody and his family are in line to receive $10.75 million.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate finally settled their differences over the compensation for Brody, one of Senate President Mike Haridopolos’s top priorities, after the chambers traded the bill back-and-forth. The wheelchair-bound Brody and his parents were in the Senate gallery when the measure was unanimously approved this evening.

Attorneys and lobbyists trying to get compensation for a severely disabled Broward County man – one of Senate President Mike Haridopolos’s top priorities – have agreed to waive their fees in order to settle Eric Brody’s case.

Brody, now 32, was injured in 1988 when a speeding Broward Sheriff’s deputy crashed into his car, leaving him in a wheelchair and requiring extensive personal assistance

The chambers failed to reach agreement on the compensation for Brody last year, and the measure became part of a late-night meltdown on the final day of the session.

This year, the House and Senate have again been unable to reach consensus on how much Brody’s team should be paid. The House wanted to limit the fees to $400,000, but the Senate yesterday changed the bill (SB 4) to let the man’s family decide how much of the $10.75 million settlement should go to the team, including lawyer Lance Block, who has worked on the case for 14 years.

The fight over the fees is “what gives lawyers a bad name,” Block said.

Senate sends measure giving governor control over JNCs back to the House

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Senate grudgingly approved a measure giving future governors the ability to wipe out a majority of members on panels who help select judges, including Supreme Court judges, and sent it to the House for approval.

The proposal (HB 971) is a compromise with Gov. Rick Scott, who wanted to be able to wipe clean the entire judicial nominating commissions, nine-member panels made up of five gubernatorial appointees and four selected by the Florida Bar.

The House version of the measure would allow Scott to remove effectively fire JNC members picked by his successor Charlie Crist. But the Senate rejected that plan, allowing only members appointed after Scott took office to be affected.

Two Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the bill, which passed 24-14.

Democratic lawyers complained that the measure would politicize the panels, urging their colleagues excogitate the issue before voting.

“This bill gives too much power to a governor who said he wanted people who thought like him to sit on the judiciary of the state of Florida. And that is exactly what we should not allow,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, a former JNC member.

Giving one governor the ability to control a majority of the panels could erode diversity on the bench, Joyner, who is black, warned.

But bill sponsor Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, called the bill a “middle-of-the-road” solution that keeps both the JNCs from “gaming the system” by sending the governor unqualified applicants. And it prevents the governor from doing the same, Simmons said, by giving him control of only five of the nine members.

“They would only have to have one other person, one of those five, to go along with them in their decision-making,” Simmons, a lawyer, said.

The bill would give judges the ability to work as part-time judges immediately after retiring without losing their retirement benefits.

House ‘opts in’ to Citizens surplus lines, killing bill

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The House sponsor of a bill aimed at reducing the number of homeowners covered by Citizens Property Insurance opted to kill the measure (HB 245) rather than allow the state-run insurers’ customers to “opt in” to switching to unregulated “surplus lines” carriers.

Consumer advocates cheered the apparent death Tuesday of what they called the backdoor deregulation of Florida’s property insurance market.

A bipartisan House coalition voted 63-52 in support of the Senate’s language requiring that Citizens insurance customers have a chance to sign off first before being moved to the “surplus lines” companies with unregulated rates.

The House refusal to strip the Senate’s “opt in” provision inserted a day earlier proved to be a deal-breaker for the bill’s sponsor, who said this year’s effort appears finished. Industry lobbyists preferred a system where customers of the state’s insurer of last resort would be automatically switched unless they took steps to “opt out.”

“We’re finished with it for this year,” sponsor Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said Tuesday.

- Palm Beach Post staff writer Charles Elmore contributed to this story.

Senate Easter basket special? Pink bunnies!

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Easter baskets could get even more festive if Gov. Rick Scott signs off on a bill heading his way that will allow farm animals, including bunnies, ducklings and chicks, to be dyed – that’s colored, not killed. The House passed the measure 109-5.

Nearly 50 years ago, Florida outlawed dyed bunnies, chickens and ducks.

But just in time for Easter, kids may find pink or green bunnies tucked in with other mellifluous treats in their holiday baskets after the Florida Senate tacked on an amendment to an agriculture bill (HB 1197) dealing with honeybees and other critters.

Animal- loving Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich tried to get the amendment stripped off, saying the statute banning animal dying comes under the “animal cruelty” section of the Florida Statutes.

Dyed bunnies, ducks and baby chicks “look really cute at a couple of months of age” Rich, D-Weston, argued. “But when they get older and nobody wants them, then they get loose or taken to our shelters.”

But Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, the amendment sponsor, said dog groomers want the ban on dying lifted so they can colorize pets for competitions and parades. She said dying dogs isn’t cruel and rejected Rich’s argument that pets don’t get asked if they want their fur dyed.

“We neuter dogs without their permission. I’ve never asked my poodle if he wanted a hair cut,” Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said. “Animal cruelty is wrong…but dying a dog’s hair or horse’s tail I don’t think is cruel.”

But Rich didn’t back down.

“This is not about grooming poodles,” she said. “This…is a way of ensuring that we don’t have a lot of little adorable ducks, rabbits and chickens that are given away at Easter time and look so cute and then two or three months later nobody wants them.”

Rich’s attempt failed, and the amended ag bill now goes back to the House.

Anti-Sharia law measure headed to Senate floor

Monday, March 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A measure that aims at banning the use in Florida of Sharia, a code of law based on the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed, is on its way to the Senate floor after a procedural maneuver removing it from its last committee of reference.

Critics, including the Anti-Defamation League, say the measure, already approved by the Florida House, would also keep Jewish couples from using Jewish Bet Din tribunals to get a divorce, something their faith requires for remarriage.

A Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week signed off on the measure (SB 1360) with less than three minutes of debate. The Senate committee vote coincided with the fourth Muslim Annual Capitol Day on Tuesday.

Ahmed Bedier, the rally’s organizer, blasted lawmakers for reviving the measure, first offered last year.

“We’re not the people who are un-American,” Bedier said last week. “They are, for violating the Constitution and introducing legislation that limits religious freedom.”

The Anti-Defamation League asked lawmakers to reject the proposal, saying it is unnecessary because both the state and U.S. constitutions already prohibit the use of foreign or religious law in the courts. And the ADL contends it is based on legislation proposed by anti-Islamic leaders outside Florida.

The Senate could vote on the measure as early as Wednesday.

- The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Parents, Democrats bash ‘parent trigger’ proposal

Monday, March 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A coalition of parent-led groups, including the Florida PTA, and Democrats bashed a fast-tracked “parent trigger” proposal that would let parents at failing schools determine their fate.

The bill “has everything with laying the groundwork for the hostile, corporate takeover of public schools throughout Florida, a direct attack on public education,” Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston said at a press conference this morning.

Before the event began, Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution lobbyists handed out press releases asserting that national Democrats support the controversial measure. The California group called opponents “defenders of the status quo” and accused the Florida Education Association of invoking “new boogeymen” in “an attempt to confuse parents and political observers.” The “parent trigger” is now in place in first-in-the-nation California, Texas and Mississippi.

In those states, Democrats including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have favored the plan. The at-time unctuous, election-year parent trigger debate is pitting teachers’ unions and parent groups against charter schools and for-profit management companies throughout the nation.

At least 20 states, including Florida, are now considering “Parent Empowerment” legislation. The business-backed, conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has crafted model bills similar to the one (SB 1718, HB 1191) now on its way to the Senate floor in Florida; the House approved an identical measure last week along partisan lines. The Florida proposal is being pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and his education foundation, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and other GOP leaders.

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House approves tuition hikes for UF and FSU

Friday, March 2nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Florida House signed off on a plan to allow Florida State University and the University of Florida to set higher tuition than the state’s nine other public universities in a move to boost the two institutions’ national prominence.

The passage of the bill (HB 7129) is the latest effort in a decades-long attempt to create a tiered university system, something GOP leaders say is necessary for Florida’s higher ed system to compete with other states’ universities.

The bill allows research universities that meet certain standards – right now, UF and FSU – to charge higher tuition and fees than the other universities and also authorizes those universities to establish required courses for certain students.

Critics of the plan, which the House passed 85-28, say the hikes impose too much of a financial burden on already cash-strapped poor students.

California has seven Association of American Universities “pre-eminent” research universities, while Florida has just one, the bill sponsor Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, said.

“That’s shameful,” Proctor, the chancellor of the private Flagler College and a former member of the state Board of Education. Proctor said his plan will help Florida compete for businesses who want to relocate to regions with premiere research universities.

“Nothing is as important to economic recovery to this state as what you do to the state universities,” Proctor said.

Tuition at UF, FSU and three other universities has climbed 60 percent over the past four years, and 45 percent at five other schools, including Florida Atlantic University. Universities can seek as much as a 15 percent tuition hike each year but require approval for the increases from the universities’ Board of Governors, which has not rejected any university’s tuition request.

Rep. Dwight Bullard, a teacher, called the measure irresponsible.

“If we’re supposed to be up here looking out for the best interests of our constituents, we can’t go about doing tuition increases that large,” Bullard, D-Miami, said.

House passes anti-abortion measure, Senate unlikely to hear it

Thursday, March 1st, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Republican-dominated House approved a sweeping anti-abortion measure that would require a 24-hour waiting period and impose strict regulation of clinics, but a similar proposal is unlikely to advance in the Senate.

House leaders cleared the chamber of the House “pages” – messengers as young as 12 years old – before the hour-long debate, some of it brutally graphic, on the measure began.

The regulations included in the proposal (HB 277) would require clinics to be wholly owned by a doctor who specialized in what critics say are outdated abortion procedures during his or her residency, require a 24-hour waiting period before women could get the procedure and require doctors to inform women that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks, something disputed within the scientific community.

The measure would also ban abortion providers from advertising. That ban was struck down by the Supreme Court more than 30 years ago.

The abortion debate in the Florida legislature comes as the emotionally- and politically-charged issue draws more focus on the national stage.

Democrats argued that the measure was another attempt by Republicans to whittle away at abortion rights.

The bill is designed to “cut off a woman’s access to safe, legal abortion care in Florida,” argued Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach. “I still don’t understand why this chamber wants to regulate my body.”

But the anti-abortion Republicans said that abortions should be more difficult to get and that the regulations are designed to make women safer.

“I don’t believe that this is intrusive in any way. It’s not intrusive to save a human being’s life. It’s heroic. This is heroic work that we need to be proud of doing,” said Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando.

The measure passed with a 78-33 vote but a similar measure in the Senate is unlikely to get a hearing on the floor.

Student ‘inspirational messages’ poised for final passage

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A measure allowing public school students to offer ‘inspirational messages’ at assemblies is set for final passage tomorrow despite objections from Democrats and civil rights groups that the proposal is unconstitutional and could prompt bullying.

After tomorrow’s almost certain passage by the Florida House – the Senate has already signed off on the measure – the bill will go to Gov. Rick Scott for approval. Scott has said he will likely sign the measure into law.

The House spent more than an hour on questions about school prayer before rolling the bill over for a vote tomorrow. Democrats questioned the measure’s constitutionality and raised concerns about putting students of different faiths at odds and potential bullying of students whose faiths makes them a minority.

But the arguments failed to convince the proposal’s House and Senate sponsors – both present during a question-and-answer period on the House floor – to back away from their bill (SB 98).

Sen. Gary Siplin, a Democrat from Orlando, crafted the measure using court rulings outlining constitutional shortcomings in school prayer practices. But the ACLU has said the measure remains unconstitutional and will likely wind up in court.

The proposal would give school boards permission to allow students to offer prayers at mandatory school assemblies as long as adults are not involved in the creation of the prayers and do not participate in the invocations.

School boards can already adopt such policies, argued Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.

“Why do we need a bill to fix a problem if there isn’t one?” Bullard, a teacher, asked.

School board members are confused about what they are allowed to do when it comes to prayer, said House sponsor Charles Van Zandt, R-Keystone Heights.

And Van Zandt said the measure will give all students the opportunity to practice their constitutional rights to free speech.

Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, asked what the definition of an ‘inspirational message’ outlined in the bill would be and if the Aryan Satanic Manifesto would qualify.

“That would be the student’s prerogoative because of our First Amendment right of free speech,” Van Zandt said.

Some Jewish Democrats asked if the prayers would create divisiveness among students of different religions and might give students with extreme views an opportunity to bloviate about them to a captive audience.

“There is divisiveness in opinions among our students regarding almost any aspect of any message,” Van Zandt said.

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