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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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Pension battle now in hands of high court

Friday, September 7th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The battle over 3 percent payroll contributions demanded of public employees by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature in 2011 went Friday before the state Supreme Court, with a lawyer for workers saying it violates an almost 40-year pension fund guarantee.

About $2 billion is at stake — cash lawmakers expected to draw from the payments. It was used to plug holes in last year’s budget and this year’s spending plan, which took effect July 1.

 Lawmakers also could be forced to repay $786 million already collected from employees of  the state, school boards, counties, colleges, universities and special districts if justices agree with a lower court that found the payments unconstitutional.

Ron Meyer, attorney for the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said much of the dispute turns on timing. The lower court found the move violated the constitution because it applied to all 623,000 employees in the Florida Retirement System. 

If lawmayers had sought the payments only from workers hired after the law took effect July 1 last year, they may have been on solid legal ground, Meyer conceded.

“You just can’t go back and change the deal midway,” Meyer said following arguments before the seven-member court.

Scott and lawmakers, however, say a 1981 court ruling involving the Florida Sheriffs Association, held that the Legislature could reduce the amount of benefits that would go to FRS members. Former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero argued for the state before his former colleagues.

Scott called the change “common-sense public pension reform.”

“The legal question in the case is straightforward,” Scott said. “The Legislature relied on and carefully followed a thirty-year-old Florida Supreme Court case, which held that the Legislature can change the public pension system on a going-forward basis.  We therefore expect the Supreme Court to follow its own prior decision.”

 

Teachers union says new merit pay law violates constitution

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The Florida Education Association sued Wednesday to overturn the new state law that ends teacher tenure and introduces merit pay based in large part on how students perform on standardized tests.

The state’s largest teachers’ union said the measure — approved by the Republican-ruled Legislature and the first bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott — violates constitutional collective bargaining guarantees. Employment terms are to be decided by negotiations between teachers and school districts — not by state lawmakers, said Ron Meyer, attorney for the FEA, which filed the suit on behalf of six school teachers.

“It strains credulity that people in Tallahassee,  over in the Capitol, know better than the people on the ground,”  Meyer said.

Andy Ford, FEA president, said the new standard — approved in a mostly party-line vote, with legislative Democrats opposed — “totally changed the teaching profession in Florida.”

“It denies teachers the constitutional right to collective bargaining,” Ford said.

The merit pay legislation requires that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student achievement on tests — including the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and other standardized exams, most of which must still be developed by state and local educators.

Under the bill, current teachers would retain existing pay schedules and contracts — even those spanning multi-years. They could lose their jobs, though, if they drew two subpar annual evaluations within three years.

Teachers hired after July 1, however, are limited to one-year contracts and would draw raises only if rated “effective” or “highly effective.”

Former Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a similar bill last year. But during last fall’s governor’s race, Scott made ending teacher tenure and enacting merit pay a central portion of his campaign, with the FEA throwing in heavily behind Democrat Alex Sink.

Teacher union files lawsuit to keep class size amendment off ballot

Friday, July 23rd, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Florida teachers’ union filed a lawsuit today to keep a constitutional amendment watering down class size restrictions off the ballot in November.

The GOP-dominated legislature put Amendment 8 on the ballot to allow school districts flexibility with constitutionally-mandated class size restrictions voters approved in 2002.

The class sizes have been eased in over time and this year are set to go from school-level averages to individual classroom pupil/teacher limits.

The proposed amendment, if approved by voters in November, would keep the averages at the school level.

But Ron Meyer, the lawyer representing the Florida Education Association and who filed the lawsuit this morning, contends that the amendment is really about stiffing taxpayers by not adequately funding education as the state constitution requires.

Lawmakers failed to put $354 million needed to comply with the class sizes into the budget this year, Meyer said.

The ballot title and summary don’t tell voters that the real aim of the amendment is to cut back on education spending, he accused.

“The failure of the legislature to be honest with parents – to tell them that Amendment 8 cuts funding to public schools which will result in crowded classrooms once again – is what makes this lawsuit necessary,” Meyer said in a press release.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat running for governor, said she supports the amendment because it gives flexibility to school districts.

Read the lawsuit here.

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