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404 posts from April 2011

April 29, 2011

House takes aim at lobbyists in schools budget offer

The House and Senate are just a few cents apart on agreeing to how much money school districts should get next year for each student -- though other issues remain for the two sides to hash out.

The House threw a curve ball in its budget offer Friday morning by saying it wants to keep districts from contracting outside lobbyists for more than $100,000 -- a move that led to surprised looks among the lobbying corps sitting in a Senate committee room.

"In tough times, you look at all areas of spending," said Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna and the House budget chief, though she admitted to not knowing how many districts spend that kind of cash on contract lobbyists (many have in-house lobbyists).

Originally, the two chambers had contemplated cutting per-pupil money an average of $463 in the House and $423 in the Senate. The Senate on Thursday proposed a $540.37 reduction after legislative leaders set aside less money than expected for schools.

(The actual cut is closer $83, the Senate says, taking into account factors including reforms to pensions for public employees.)

Friday morning, the House put forth a $539.85 cut to per-student funding, which is currently $6,810 a year.

Continue reading "House takes aim at lobbyists in schools budget offer" »

Lawmakers work out deal over adult education funding

State lawmakers have tweaked a provision in the state Legislature's higher education budget that had Miami-Dade educators worried about a possible drop in the school district's high school graduation rate.

The original proposal would have done away with additional higher education funding for high school students taking adult education classes -- usually at night or over the summer, and often to recover credits for classes they failed and need in order to graduate.

Miami-Dade would have taken the biggest hit from the change. But it looks like the district and local lawmakers made enough noise to get the provision changed. Sen. Oscar Braynon II, D-Miami Gardens, had tried to make the change on the Senate floor, but was rebuffed until the House and Senate met to iron out budget details.

The higher education budget conference agreed to allow high schoolers to take adult classes for one more year -- as long as the kids are re-taking core classes that they need to meet graduation requirements, and they limit the number of adult courses to two per student.

Here's where the schools budget stands

The House-Senate Pre-K-12 budget conference committee finally met for the first time late Thursday night, after the two sides came to an initial agreement on raiding some state trust funds to backfill part of the hole in the education budget. Schools spending had been propped up for the last two years by hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money.

The Senate's first offer -- a schools budget of about $20 billion -- represents a drop of nearly 9 percent from last year. It is some $162 million lower than the SEnate's earlier budget plan.

Per-student funding takes a 7.9 percent cut in the proposal -- about $540 per pupil. But that number is misleading, said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, because it includes the $859 million money districts will lose from the Florida Retirement System if employees, as expected, start contributing 3 percent of their pay to their pensions. Districts will also have to pay $859 million less in pension costs.

Taking that into account, as well as $554 billion in stimulus education jobs that districts were told to save, Simmons said the per-student funding cut amounts to about 1 percent.

Expect districts to take issue with that and say that the numbers don't add up to the state funding public education.

Said Simmons: "It's all green money. They have it."

April 28, 2011

Deal reached on higher education spending

The House and Senate tonight came to an agreement on proposed higher education spending.
The negotiated deal would hike base tuition by 8 percent at colleges and universities and reduce Bright Future scholarships by roughly 20 percent. Universities would likely seek another 7 percent increase from the Board of Governors.
 
The two sides agreed to keep H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center funded at $9.6 million for its doctor training program. The Senate had originally cut that amount to $5.4 million.
 
The deal could always be undone by House and Senate leaders but for, now, higher education spending is one of the few areas close to being ready for a full vote of the legislature.

Ethics complaint filed against Miami lawmaker

A Tallahassee mother of three said she filed an ethics complaint on Wednesday against state Rep. Erik Fresen over his family's ties to a charter school company.

Fresen, a Miami Republican, voted in a Florida House committee last week for a broad charter schools reform bill.

He had previously helped slip language into the bill prohibiting cities and counties from imposing stricter building and zoning rules on charter schools than on traditional public schools. Charter schools are privately run but publicly funded.

Trish Thompson, who has three kids in the Leon County public school system, said she submitted the complaint because, in her view, Fresen should have disclosed a voting conflict on the proposal, HB 7195.

"I'm so tired of lawmakers that make laws to profit them," she said. "And I'm very concerned that all of the money is being shifted from the traditional public schools."

Fresen has repeatedly addressed questions raised about his relationship to Academica, the for-profit company that employs his brother-in-law and sister. (Thompson's complaint says Fresen's wife also works for the company a school run by Academica, but she does not, Fresen has said.)

On Thursday, Fresen, who asked for a copy of the complaint before he would comment because he had not yet received it, again scoffed at the suggestion that he has a conflict of interest.

"I consider this complaint to be another misguided attempt to create smoke where there is no fire," he said.

As a lawmaker, Fresen sits on several education committees in the state House. Legislators are required to disclose within 15 days any votes that could result in a "special private gain or loss" for themselves or their relatives.

A "special private" benefit is a narrow legal term that refers to a lawmaker voting on a matter that would benefit himself or his family -- and no one else. The charter schools bill, Fresen has noted, would affect all charter school companies -- not just Academica.

Union dues bill rears its head as amendment

Here it comes again. A bill to ban public employee unions from using payroll deduction to collect their dues was considered all but dead on Wednesday when Senate leaders couldn’t get the votes to pass it.

Now comes amendments in the House and Senate on a slew of bills that impose the same restrictions on unions and require that they get annual written permission from every member to use dues for political purposes.

The irony: the amendments are attached to bills filed by Sens. Jim Norman and Jack Latvala, two of the staunch opponents of the union dues bill. (Norman’s is on SB 982 and HB 241.)

Rep. Matt Gaetz, the House sponsor of the anti-union bill, has filed amendments to the House companions of Norman’s bill related to wage theft, which is scheduled for a floor vote.

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Chiropractors aren't qualified to check out youth athletes' brain injuries, House says

A widely backed proposal to curb concussions of youth athletes hit a time-consuming snag on the floor Thursday. The hold-up? Chiropractors.

An amended version of HB 301 emerged from its last committee stop with a revision allowing for chiropractors to be among physicians who can check for concussions on the sidelines of youth sporting events. But the sponsor, Rep. Ronald "Doc" Renuart, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, didn't want that. Chiropractors, he said, are not qualified to assess brain injuries.

So he presented an amendment on the House floor that removed chiropractors from the list of authorized physicians, which includes osteopathic physicians (which is Renuart's profession).

"I would not go to a podiatrist or a chiropractor or a dentist for a brain injury," he said.

The debate lasted more than 30 minutes. Chiropractic physician Rep. Steve Perman, D-Boca Raton, argued chiropractors trained to evaluate traumatic brain injuries are just as fit to check out dinged-up athletes. They must follow very strict protocols, he said. Joining him in pro-chiropractor solidarity was Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs.

Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne, said chiropractors should "be treating pains, certainly not brains."

Renuart's amendment passed on a voice vote, and his bill passed 118-0. Read more about the bill, backed by the NFL, and the boy who played a role in making it happen here.

Immigration bill will go straight to Senate floor

Senate President Mike Haridopolos told reporters Thursday afternoon that there won't be a budget committee meeting after all to hear SB 2040, the controversial immigration bill that has stalled in his chamber for two weeks.

"I still plan on taking it up on the Senate floor," he said.

Presumably the bill would be heavily amended. Haridopolos said he favors a harder line on some issues thatn Sen. Anitere Flores, the Miami Republican who shepherded the bill before Haridopolos handed it off to Sen. J.D. Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican, on Wednesday.

Haridopolos also said state law enforcement officials should not be able to check the immigration status of people who get pulled over in a traffic stop.

Alexander later weighed in, too.

"I'm not comfortable going with anything that may be perceived as profiling," he said, adding that the Senate is considering checking a person's immigration status after he or she is read his or her rights. That, Alexander said, could help in "dramatically reducing the potential for profiling."

He said that it would have to be used on everyone: "You'd probably have to check everyone so nobody is selectively considered," he said.

--PATRICIA MAZZEI AND MARY ELLEN KLAS

Haridopolos: "A mistake was made."

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said "a mistake was made" Thursday when the Senate quickly passed an amendment to provide $1.75 million worth of state funding for the a prescription drug monitoring database.  He said he will require the Senate to repeal it.

The amendment was introduced by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the sponsor of SB 818, which is intended to curb prescription drug abuse in the Florida. When asked by Haridopolos to explain the amendment on the floor, Fasano said, "This funds the presciprtion drug monitoring database." The amendment passed with no discussion.

Fasano's bill also repeals a current law that prohibits using state money for the database. The House bill maintains that provision. The House's proposal also bans pharmaceutical companies from providing funding for the database. As it is now, the program is supported by grants and private donations.

Many believe the database is a critical tool for fighting the prescription drug problem. Addressing concerns about a lack of funding for the program, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced earlier this week that law enforcement officials throughout the state have offered to contribute money generated through seizures of criminals' assets and money to fund the the database.

 

On House floor, Miami-Dade school board discussion gets heated

The Q-and-A on the Florida House floor got feisty over Rep. Ana Rivas Logan's contentious proposal to restructure the Miami-Dade School Board.

The fireworks between Logan, a Miami Republican, and Democratic members of the Miami-Dade delegation are not surprising. Debate over Logan’s bill got increasingly testy in several committees.

The bill’s companion is dormant in the state Senate, where Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said he had changed his mind on moving the measure forward.

But the House could vote -– as early as Friday -– to send the proposal to the Senate, keeping the legislation on life support for now.

Thursday morning, Miami-Dade and Broward Democrats held a news conference to denounce Logan’s bill as policy that would dilute minority representation on the school board. Logan wants to condense the number of single-member districts on the board from nine to seven and add two at-large, countywide seats that would serve as the body’s chair and vice-chair.

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