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413 posts from April 2009

April 30, 2009

Florida likes Obama, bailouts not so much

President Barack Obama receives approval from 60 percent of Florida voters, according to a Suffolk University/7NEWS polls, though the same percentage disapprove of the bailouts awarded to some financial institutions and auto companies.

"Voters acknowledge that stimulus packages and bigger government are a necessary economic fix for the short term, even though they disapprove,'' said David Paleologos, director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk University in Boston. "But if Barack Obama's administration calls for bigger government and stimulus solutions for all problems, his favorability may decline in the long term.''

The polls was conducted April 26-28 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent. More here.

Bright Futures dimming...

Bright Futures won't be so bright next year for Florida's top university undergraduates, who are likely to be paying a greater percentage of their tuition costs.

The latest budget offer between the House and Senate on higher ed funding keeps the scholarships at current-year levels -- and does not increase the funding to match even the base increase tuition of 8 percent likely to be approved this session. On top of that, universities are about to get the green light to raise tuition by an additional 7 percent, for a total of 15 percent.

"We're trying really hard to hang on to the program, but the funding is making it difficult," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, chair of the Senate's higher ed funding committee. We would love for it to cover that 8 percent, but we don't have the money. It's just not there."

Jeb Bush joins Romney and McCain in new GOP group

From The AP: Jeb Bush and other top Republican officials and lawmakers plan to announce on Thursday that they will have a series of town hall-style meetings about ideas for shaping the country, starting this weekend. Their goal is to highlight conservative policy ideas and draw contrasts with Democratic President Barack Obama.

Democrats have said Republicans don't have any new ideas and only say "no" to Obama's agenda. House and Senate Republicans want to rebut that claim.

They're forming a policy group called the National Council for a New America. It will include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain.

April 29, 2009

AP, IB funding safe; construction money, not so much

In a win for school districts, leaders of the House and Senate committees hashing out a compromise pre-K-12 education budget agreed late Wednesday not to cut funding to Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and other rigorous high school courses.

The Senate had originally proposed slashing money for the popular, college-level classes in half, as well as reducing the bonuses teachers receive when their students pass the course exams. School districts cried foul, saying that was unfair to do in a year when a new high school grading system will give more weight to those advanced course offerings.

Senators reversed their position earlier Wednesday, and House members accepted the change Wednesday night.

While the two chambers don't yet have a compromise on all areas of the education budget, one area has seen no change: a move that would shift some property-tax money normally designated for school districts' capital budgets into its day-to-day operating budgets.

That would help smaller districts strapped for cash, but larger counties with more construction, maintenance and technology needs could be in trouble. Miami-Dade and Broward schools officials have said they might have to forgo roof replacements, maintenance workers and new computers if the change goes through.

"We just don't want to disenfranchise some of the small school districts," said Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican and Senate leader on the education budget negotiations. He dismissed large districts' hardship claims as "part of the season."

"Every year they're going to die," he said. "I'm sure they'll be back next year with four or five new ones."

Senate offer: no craps and roulette, referendums on blackjack

The Senate gambling negotiators made a beefy offer to its House counterparts late Wednesday:

* No more craps and roulette for the Seminole Tribe, as had been the offer in its original bill.

* Only limited gambling for Brighton, Immokalee and Big Cypress facilities -- with a definition as to what that means to come.

* $500 million in upfront cash for the first year; with the revenue declining to $400 million minimum in the second year and $250 million minimum for the remaining 23 years.

* Broward and Miami-Dade parimutuels could seek a voter referendum to get black jack at their cardrooms and pay $25 million to operate the games.

* Parimutuels outside of Miami-Dade and Broward could get slot machines if they get a county referendum and pay a $3 million license fee. If they don't seek slot machines, they can obtain a historic racing games.

* Gambling age is raised to 21.

"It's seems you have made a good faith start to our negotiation,'' said Rep. Bill Galvano, the lead House negotiator. "I understand the general direction which you're going.''

He said that the authorization of slot machines "jumped out at me'' as something that will be an issue for the House but the notion that voters could have a say through a referendum was a good idea.

"Referendums on tough issues are always more palatable. That's just a given,'' he said. "You can always say you're shifting a decision to voters.'

Galvano noted that the Seminoles may have trouble accepting some of the provisions in the offer, however.

"That's what makes this issue so difficult,'' he said. "Whatever we agree to is nothing more than an agreement to agree. Until we get the third party agreed, then it's not enforceable.''

Atwater admits: Gambling will be a 'very hard lift'

Senate President Jeff Atwater tonight all but conceded the gambling bills could be abandoned this legislative session.

"In the end, the state could press on without closure at this moment,'' he said at a press availability tonight.

"I thought this would be the most difficult conference committee to find its common ground,'' Atwater said. "I have really thought from the outset this was going to be a very tough challenge to come together and make this work....I think it is a reality that it is going to be a very very hard lift.''

The "bizarre" three-headed health and human services budget

Some lawmakers already have noted the difficulty of dealing with a House budget that has been split in half. Now, take the states health and human services budget, which has been split into three parts.

There's the Health and Human Services/Health Care Appropriations Committee, which oversees the budget for the Agency for Health Care Administration; the Health and Human Services/Healthy Seniors Appropriations Committee, which determines the budget for the Department of Elder Affairs and the Department of Veterans Affairs; and the Health and Human Services/Human Services Appropriations Committee, which oversees the Department of Health, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and the Department of Children and Families.

But after a day of negotiations at least one third of the three-pronged committee has wrapped up its talks on the budget. But some members on the Health and Human Services/Healthy Seniors Appropriations Committee say just because the line items line up, doesn't mean they're happy with the budget.

Committee members in both chambers and both parties point to longer waiting lists and cuts to community care, home care and feeding programs for the elderly as reasons to ask for a larger allocation.

"Even though the lines match up, that doesn't mean very much to me," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston.

Some also have said one of the major obstacles has been the three-headed monster that is health and human services appropriations process.

"They have three different human services appropriations committee meetings," Rich said, of the House set-up. "The money is in a silo, we don't operate that way. We have one health and human services appropriations committee, so we can move money around from one area to another, depending on what we think is the highest priority and where the greatest need is. We can't do this the way this is structured...It's a bizarre process."

Graduation standards push is dead this year

The first major piece of education legislation declared dead this session is the push to raise graduation standards for high school students.

Senate sponsor Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, said tonight that SB 2654 won't be heard on the Senate floor --- though the proposal passed the House barely one week ago --- because there's just not time.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future has been pushing to raise the curriculum requirements for high school students, phasing in algebra II and geometry as required math classes, and biology I and chemistry as required science classes. In addition, the proposal would have increased the required graduation score on the 10th grade FCAT to 3 from 2.

"The bills got farther than I ever expected this year," Altman said.

While the push to raise standards enjoyed widespread support, even with Democrats, the FCAT provision was controversial. Altman said they talked about taking out the FCAT part, but it was more than that.

"I think the main thing was ... having the time to really vet these additional standards," Altman said. "I mean, that's a big thing. when you change standards."

Altman said they'll waste no time looking at the issue for next session, pointing out that committee meetings start again in the fall.

"We'll be right back at it," Altman said. "And we'll have more information, and we'll be able to talk with more of the stakeholders, and we'll be better prepared."

Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future, said she still has hope for this year, but also, "If it's not going to pass this session, it will be disappointing and it will be another year wasted in the lives of kids that need to be prepared for the future that awaits them once they leave high school."

Dems want Charlie Crist's Seminole gambling money in education

What happened to using gambling money to fund cash-strapped schools?

That was the Florida House Democrats' reaction to the news Wednesday and late Tuesday that any dollars from Gov. Charlie Crist's proposed Seminole gaming compact would be used to fill drained state savings accounts -- instead of boosting funding for K-12 education.

The Legislature still has to approve the gaming deal, which would give the Seminole Tribe a monopoly on some slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward. But pulling it out of the education pot means the state budget can be passed without it -- and gambling opponents, particularly in the anti-gaming House, can vote against it without looking like they're voting against education.

"This is shameful because the only reason many people support an expansion of gambling is because they are told it will help Florida's education system," Rep. Martin Kiar, a Davie Democrat, said in a statement.

Supporters of the compact -- which Crist unveiled to much fanfare earlier this month -- say it could provide a more dedicated source of income for schools, which depend on plunging property and sales tax revenues. Opponents have called it short-sighted.

Choo-Choo Interpretive Art, by the artist A. Villalobos

So we asked Sen. Alex Villalobos, Rules chair, if we might see some choo-choo drama on the floor of the Senate tomorrow. He smiled and drew the picture below. And then he smiled again.

Sen. Paula Dockery has been maneuvering long and hard, with big pushing today, to bring the Sun Rail proposal to the floor of the chamber, where she says she has more than the 20 votes needed to kill it.

Well, Villalobos does not seem all that optimistic about the proposal's survival odds, based on the picture he drew in this reporter's notebook of a train going in a decidedly downward direction: