« January 2008 | Main | March 2008 »

229 posts from February 2008

February 28, 2008

Board of Governors gives up on Bright Futures changes for now

State University System Chancellor Mark Rosenberg on Thursday announced that the Board of Governors will not push for any changes to the state's popular Bright Futures scholarship program. Rosenberg said that instead the Board of Governors will push instead to secure "adequate support" for universities and stop the "brain drain from Florida's universities."

Rosenberg, via a press release, said that a discussion on Bright Futures planned for March will be postponed until "we get a signal from legislative leadership that the scholarship program is coming under legislative review."

It would have been a long shot to do much with Bright Futures during this election year. Not helping is that Senate President Ken Pruitt has pretty much declared war on the board and one of his top priorities this session is a constitutional amendment that would make it clear that the Legislature, not the BOG, controls tuition.

Seiler to run for Fort Lauderdale mayor

It's official. State Rep. Jack Seiler plans to run for Fort Lauderdale mayor when his term ends this year.

Seiler, a Wilton Manors Democrat and this year's chairman of the Broward delegation, filed paperwork to run for the mayor's post on Wednesday, officially ending rumors about where he would go when he leaves the Florida House due to term limits at the end of this legislative session.

Seiler, a former Wilton Manors mayor, was elected in 2000 and has since earned a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable members of the Legislature.

He will be challenging Fort Lauderdale Cindi Hutchinson to replace current mayor Jim Naugle, who is term-limited out next spring.

Smash up those voting machines

Secretary of State Kurt Browning announced Thursday that the state has inked a deal to have a Tampa recycling company to pick up and haul away thousands of touchscreen voting machines. First up will be machines made by Sequoia and in use in such counties as Palm Beach and Indian River. These machines will be "de-manufactured" or smashed up and sold for parts.

Ivotronic_list The company, Creative Recycling, will also eventually pick up ES&S machines used in other counties such as Miami-Dade and Broward. The company will attempt first to remarket the machines to other jurisdictions in the U.S. and the world.

Any proceeds that result from the remarket and "de-manufacture" of the voting machines will go first to the counties that still owe money for the ATM-styled machines that were installed in the wake of the 2000 presidential election.

Gov. Charlie Crist made the push last year to get rid of most touchscreen machines and replace them with optical scan machines that rely on a paper ballot.

Ros-Lehtinen does a victory dance - and gets a presidential shoutout

Backers of a proposal to spend billions of dollars over the next 5 years to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa and other regions (including Haiti) had assailed Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in recent weeks, accusing the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs committee of refusing to negotiate with Democrats.

But the package sailed out of the committee Wednesday, prompting plaudits from President Bush, who singled out Ros-Lehtinen (not without mangling the pronounciation of her last name) and acting committee chair Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif. at a press conference today.

"I want to thank acting chairman Howard Berman and ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and all the members of the committee for the action they took," Bush said, noting that the committee was to visit with him today at the White House. (Where Ros-Lehtinen said she planned to hand the president a letter from Miami-Dade commissioner Jose Pepe Diaz looking for federal $$$ for Miami International Airport.)

The AIDS program is considered one of the most successful and popular foreign policy initiatives of the Bush administration and Bush was eager to see it extended.

Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, who had criticized Ros-Lehtinen in a conference call with reporters earlier this week, saying her version of the bill "strips out provisions that are critical to women" and "was not willing to negotiate with the majority," praised the bill's success.

"With bi-partisan support, Congress is beginning to fix aspects of the AIDS program that were clearly not working," Zeitz said.

He noted the new legislation removes a controversial requirement that one-third of all HIV prevention funding be spent on absitence and fidelity programs. Instead, the bill supports promoting the behaviors- but doesn't require fixed funding.

Ros-Lehtinen earlier this week rejected suggestions that she was blocking a compromise and Wednesday did a victory dance after the bill's passage.

Joe Garcia gets help from the Dean-iacs

Democracy for America, a Howard Dean-inspired "political action committee dedicated to supporting fiscally responsible, socially progressive candidates," is backing and raising $$$ for Joe Garcia, who is looking to oust Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.

"South Florida has a problem," an e-mail solicitation from Dean's brother, DFA chair Jim Dean, says. "This overwhelmingly Democratic stronghold that delivers a significant margin of victory for the Democratic presidential nominee every four years is represented in Congress by reactionary, right-wing Bush-Republicans."

The e-mail, which asks for a $20.08 contribution (get it?) calls Diaz-Balart, "one of the worst,'' noting that he voted against expanding a childrens' health insurance plan and for legislation "to grant immunity to telecommunication companies who spied on Americans." (That's a reference to the Bush-backed intelligence law that Republicans say makes it easier for the government to eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists. But Democrats say it also gives legal immunity to companies that gave up private data after Sept. 11)

The email notes that the group already has "boots on the ground working to make sure Joe wins." It calls the outgoing chair of the Miami-Dade Democrats and former Cuban American National Foundation executive director a 20-year "leader on the issues that affect the lives of real people.

"Joe will fight to end to the war in Iraq responsibly and bring our brave men and women home," the e-mail says. "He will strengthen the middle class by bringing new jobs to Florida and making college affordable."

Former Feeney aide to head elections office

Secretary of State Kurt Browning said that he has hired Donald Palmer, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, to be the next director of the state elections division. Palmer was also once an aide to Congressman Tom Feeney and worked for the U.S. Navy in the judge advocate general's corps.

Browning said that Palmer was the best qualified of the eight applicants for the post, noting his role in enforcement of federal election laws. Browning downplayed any concerns about partisanship, pointing out that Palmer only worked for the Central Florida Republican in 2005. Feeney has earned a reputation as a brass-knuckles campaigner and when he was House Speaker advocated having the Legislature designate electors for George W. Bush during the 2000 recount.

"It was a very, very short time he was with Congressman Feeney,'' said Browning. "He is very non-partisan, he is very fair."

Palmer is replacing Sarah Jane Bradshaw, who has been the acting division director since last fall when Amy Tuck abruptly resigned last November.

Miami-Dade activists in Tallahassee to rally support for criminal justice bill

Liberty City resident Phillip Baine came to Tallahassee Thursday with about a dozen other folks from around the state to urge the Governor and lawmakers to support legislation that would ease employment restrictions on convicted criminals who have completed their sentences.

Baine, 52, has tried applying for several jobs and for housing assistance only to meet road blocks, that he says have kept him from being promoted or finding affordable housing. He and several other Miami-Dade activists want legislator to approve legislation by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that would make it easier for Baine and others, who have served their sentences, to get a job. The timing of their visit was pegged to Thursday's Florida Clemency Board meeting.

The groups, including the ACLU of Florida, Florida Acorn, People for the American Way, and the Florida Restoration Coalition, also want legislation that would amend the Florida Constitution to provide civil rights, like voting, to those who have completed their sentences.

"Every time I try to take a step forward, I keep getting pushed back," Baine said. Baine was convicted in 1975 of carrying a concealed weapon and in the early 90s of cocaine possession. He said he never was sentenced to jail time of either of the charges, and the latter case was suppose to be withheld from his record.

Though he has managed to get factory-type jobs, Baine said every time he has been eligible for a promotion subsequent criminal record searches keep him from moving up.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is organizing an April 1st Day of Action. According to the group's website they plan on bringing buses of supporters from Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm-Beach, and Brevard counties to rally and march at the state Capitol.

After the clemency meeting, Crist said he also favors the legislation. "Obviously it's important that we make sure that people have an opportunity to move forward," he said. "They they have a second chance to have a second chance to have gainful employment, be productive citizens."

Two arrested for forging petition signatures

Two people were arrested late Wednesday on charges they knowingly gathered and notarized false signatures for a petition to recall Miami-Dade County Commissioner Natacha Seijas in 2006, authorities said.

Miami-Dade Police say Luz Dunlap, 59, a notary, knowingly authorized forged signatures for the failed recall effort. She is charged with more than 100 counts of falsely taking signatures and receiving signatures to mislead a public servant, both third-degree felonies.

Police also charged Anibal Roberto Orellana-Ramirez, 26, with 23 counts of forgery, a third-degree felony. Authorities say he also falsely signed a petition with someone else's name, a first-degree misdemeanor.

The December 2006 recall vote was spurred by a group called Citizens for Positive Change, who collected 3,443 petition signatures calling for the removal of the then-four-term commissioner. The anti-Seijas group included many citizens from Miami Lakes who said they were fed up with her tenure.

Dems split over Florida vote

A new Mason-DIxon poll shows Florida Democrats are torn over how to resolve the dispute over the state's early primary date, though most don't buy Hillary Clinton's argument that her victory should count toward delegates that would allow her to catch up to Barack Obama.

The survey also found that independent voters would help Republican John McCain trump either of the Democratic contenders for president in Florida.

Details here: Download FL208Poll.doc

Bipartisan push to expand vouchers this year

There are now roughly 20,000 children enrolled statewide, and the legislation would grow the number by 5,000 children a year for the next five years. Roughly one quarter of the students now enrolled in the corporate tax credit scholarship program are from Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Gaetz ''This is a program that truly provides choice to families who otherwise would not have a choice,'' said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and chairman of the Senate pre-K-12 committee who is sponsoring the bill.

But the legislation has been denounced by Florida's teachers' union and there are lingering questions about whether the program could sustain a legal challenge. The state's highest court struck down a separate private-school voucher program in 2006.

''It's going to be really difficult for us to support any expansion in corporate vouchers in an environment where the Legislature and state are having trouble properly financing schools,'' said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association.

State lawmakers are already poised to cut more than $300 million from education in early March and more cuts could come by May. Gaetz, however, counters that vouchers could wind up saving the state money -- a point echoed in a 2007 analysis done by the Collins Center for Public Policy. The argument is that it's cheaper to hand out a $3,750 private-school voucher than have the state pay $7,000 for each student in a public school.

Pudlow, however, said certain school expenses will continue no matter the size of a class.

''The school is going to still be there, the lights will still be on and the buses will still roll,'' he said.

Corporations earn a credit on their state income tax bills if they provide money to organizations that provide a voucher. Only children who qualify for reduced or free lunch are eligible for what are called ``corporate tax credit scholarships.''

The state now sets aside $88 million for tax credits for the program. Under the bill, that amount would climb to $258 million by 2012. The maximum voucher would grow to $4,500 in the fall and then would rise in the future if public school spending grows.

Past legislative battles over private-school vouchers have split Democrats and Republicans, although a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats defeated a proposed constitutional amendment on vouchers in 2006. Fifteen senators including the next Senate Democratic Leader are supporting the bill, which also has bipartisan support in the House as well. Gov. Charlie Crist also has been supportive of the existing corporate voucher program.

John Kirtley, president of the Florida School Choice Fund, said that there has been a push to have parents in the program meet with legislators to advocate for the expansion. "We've been working hard to connect constituents,'' he said. "Forty percent of the families are African-American and 30 percent are Hispanic.  They largely vote Democrat.  It's becoming more of a bipartisan issue."

Not all Democrats agree. House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber criticized the legislation as "idealogical pork" that should not be considered during a lean budget year.