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11 posts from March 19, 2014

March 19, 2014

Thurston makes late bid to repeal Stand Your Ground

After the Florida House adopted an amendment to a bill that would expand the state’s “stand your ground” law, Minority Leader Perry Thurston filed an amendment that would repeal it.

Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he sent the amendment to HB 89 before 9 p.m. on Wednesday to the printer, which he says is in time for the bill’s final reading and floor vote on Thursday. (UPDATE: It was filed on 8:50 a.m. Thursday). Thurston didn’t sit on any committees that approved the bill, which would shield people who fire warning shots in self defense from serving 10 to 20 years,

While the bill has sailed through committees garnering only two no votes from Democrats, Thurston said he had planned to vote against it because it unnecessarily expands the law. But he said he decided to file a repeal amendment, which won’t be received favorably by Republican leaders, after Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach explained to House members on Wednesday why he was amending it.

“I was surprised when he said he’s doing this to strengthen the ‘stand your ground; law,” Thurston said. “If that’s what he’s doing, it’s relevant to file an amendment to repeal ‘stand your ground.’”

Thurston, who is running for attorney general, reasons that while he was prepared to vote against the bill, he hadn’t planned to push for its repeal because that debate has already taken place without much progress toward overturning or changing it. But he said it became clear from Gaetz’s comments that Republicans were expanding the law’s reach, and decided it was time to draw attention to the gambit.

“I don’t think my chances are good,” Thurston said. “But I hope to have a broader discussion.”

HB 89 highlights frustrations Thurston is having not just with Republicans, but with the 44 other Democrats in the caucus. Most of them support the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City.

In an election year where polls show strong support for 'stand your ground', Thurston is one of the few Democrats to oppose Combee’s bill, which has the strong backing of the National Rifle Association.

Another bill with NRA backing is HB 7029 by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala -- who is revered by the gun rights lobby. Dubbed the pop tart bill, it would prohibit schools from punishing children from playing with imaginary guns, or, as one boy did, chewing a pop tart into the shape of a gun. It sailed through committees receiving not one no vote.

“There were no objections to these bills when they came through the committee process,” Thurston told Democrats in a meetiing Wednesday afternoon.  “No one voted against the poptart bill. That’s not a bill I would  have expected would have gotten this far without ‘no’ votes. I plan to vote against it. Remember, it’s ok to vote against bills.

“We’re not here to make sure that things go smooth, and pretend that everything is fine in Tallahassee,” Thurston told Democrats.

Thurston and incoming House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said the bill is unnecessary.

“It’s really an unnecessary bill in my view,” Pafford said. “The Stand Your Ground bill started out as a quiet little bill. Sometimes there’s a lot of gifts to people for no reason at all. This bill preserves a school board’s authority, so what is it really doing? Ask questions is all I’m suggesting.”

Rep. Carl Zimmermann, D-Palm Harbor, is a teacher who is also facing a tight reelection fight. He says that the bill gives school boards the power not to discipline a student, which they didn’t  have before. Other Democrats agreed.

Thurston said he knows that many Democrats won’t follow his lead tomorrow. But he’s optimistic, nonetheless.

“I’m sure I will have some supporters,” he said.

Feds accused of steering funding to anti-pot researchers

From the McClatchy Washington bureau:

As the nation’s only truly legal supplier of marijuana, the U.S. government keeps tight control of its stash, which is grown in a 12-acre fenced garden on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

From there, part of the crop is shipped to Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, where it’s rolled into cigarettes, all at taxpayer expense.

Even though Congress has long banned marijuana, the operation is legitimate. It’s run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which doles out the pot for federally approved research projects.

While U.S. officials defend their monopoly, critics say the government is hogging all the pot and giving it mainly to researchers who want to find harms linked to the drug.

U.S. officials say the federal government must be the sole supplier of legal marijuana in order to comply with a 1961 international drug-control treaty. But they admit they’ve done relatively little to fund pot research projects looking for marijuana’s benefits, following their mandate to focus on abuse and addiction.

“We’ve been studying marijuana since our inception. Of course, the large majority of that research has been on the deleterious effects, the harmful effects, on cognition, behavior and so forth,” said Steven Gust, special assistant to the director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which was created in 1974.

More here.


Update: House moves forward on gambling overhaul while Scott asks Senate to put brakes on

As a Florida House committee voted Wednesday to create new state agency to regulate gambling, Gov. Rick Scott asked the Senate to put the brakes on its proposal to bring two resort casinos to South Florida so that the legislation would not interfere with his gambling negotiations with the Seminole Tribe.

As a result, Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter abruptly cancelled a Monday meeting scheduled to take up the Senate’s gambling bills.

“The governor’s office called me and asked if we would slow down the process until we know what the terms of a potential deal with the tribe is,’’ Richter told the Herald/Times late Wednesday. He said he expects the vote to be delayed for at least another week and he is optimistic the governor will resolve the gaming compact before session ends in May.

The compact, a legal agreement between the state and the tribe, guarantees that the tribe give the state about $234 million a year in revenue in exchange for the exclusive right to operate slot machines at four casinos outside of Miami-Dade and Broward. It also allows the tribe to operate banked card games — blackjack, chemin de fer and baccarat — at the Hard Rock casinos in Tampa and near Hollywood, plus three other casinos.

The portion of the agreement that relates to table games expires Aug. 1, 2015, and Scott has decided to start negotiating terms of the deal now. If he resolves the agreement, legislators must ratify it and it is uncertain whether that could be completed before session is scheduled to adjourn May 2.

Meanwhile the House and Senate are moving forward with bills that overhaul how the state regulates gaming and both are prepared to open the door to expanded gaming of the governor agrees to allow new games during his negotiations with the tribe. Story here.


House amends immigrant tuition bill in advance of floor vote

A bill that would extend in-state tuition rates to undocumented students (HB 851) is up for a vote in the Florida House on Thursday.

But the bill looks different now, after lawmakers approved substantial changes late Wednesday.

The amendement, proposed by Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, of Miami, was intended to make the House version of the proposal more like the Senate version.

Since the amendment was approved, the bill no longer allows undocumented students to be classified as "residents for tuition purposes." Instead, undocumented students would be able to receive partial tuition waivers that would enable them to pay the same rates as Florida residents.

The adjustment was important to members of the Senate, who wanted to ensure that undocumented students would not be eligible for state-funded scholarships and other benefits outside of the education system.

Nuñez's amendment also makes it clear that undocumented students would be counted as out-of-state students. She said the provision would prevent undocumented students from displacing Florida residents. (Florida universities are required to have a certain balance of in-state students to out-of-state students.)

But a third provision in the amendment infuriated some Democrats: language requiring students to complete four consecutive years of secondary schooling in Florida.

The original version of the bill only called for three years.

During a brief debate, some democrats said the four-year rule was too limiting and might discourage some accelerated students from graduating from high school in three years. Others questioned why students who earned GEDs would not be eligible for in-state tuition. 

"The amendment weakens the overall bill," said Rep. Mark Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat. "We’re walking back from the original bill that was filed. That would have been very, very beneficial to so many people out there who really just want an education. I think for a 12-month difference, it’s really pathetic."

Nuñez insisted the amendment would not water down the proposal.

"This has been a bill a long time in the making," she said. "For people to say this is pathetic and that we are not going to help a vast majority of students is very sad."

Hundreds attend services for Gov. Reubin Askew

In a large church that was filled to capacity, Florida fondly remembered former Gov. Reubin Askew Wednesday as a man of strong convictions and deep faith who brought his state into the modern era and had the courage and resolve to tell people what they needed to hear.

Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee was crowded with nearly 800 people, including Gov. Rick Scott and five former governors: Bob Graham, Wayne Mixson, Bob Martinez, Buddy MacKay and Charlie Crist. Former Gov. Jeb Bush was unable to attend. Dozens of legislators also attended, along with the Cabinet, Supreme Court justices and people who worked for Askew, served in the Legislature when he did, or were touched by his life.

The most moving eulogy was delivered by Jim Bacchus, who left a job as a young Orlando Sentinel reporter to take a job as a 24-year-old speechwriter for Askew in the governor's office. Bacchus later worked for Askew when he was President Carter's trade ambassador, served two terms in Congress and was chairman of the appellate body of the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

Summing up the central message of Askew's life, Bacchus, a Democrat, directly faced a predominantly Republican crowd of current elected officials.

"Florida is a special place, and it becomes more special still, and it can be as special as any other place in the world if we come together and work together as one state. So bring people together; don't pull them apart,"" Bacchus said in a tone of sternness that Askew himself was known for. "And lead. What good is it to be in public office if you don't lead, if you don't take a chance, if you don't tell people what they need to hear and not just what they want to hear."

Askew was remembered by former Florida State University President Sandy D'Alemberte as stubborn and demanding, someone who had high expectations of others.  The program for the service showed a smiling Askew wearing a garnet and gold tie. Askew had such devotion to Florida State University that he once asked a university official to give him play-by-play updates of an FSU baseball game while he was at his vacation home in North Carolina.

House panel votes to give UF, FSU separate performance funding plan


University of Florida and Florida State University would receive special treatment under a performance funding model introduced in the House today. Instead of being compared to the state's other public universities, these top two schools would have their own separate standards and be eligible for double the money.

How much money hasn't been determined. The House's education budget has $45 million for performance funding, an increase from the $40 million recommended by Gov. Rick Scott. Universities want $50 million. Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said a second performance funding line item will be added to the House budget for UF and FSU only.

The plan approved unanimously by the House's Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee today also had a change that could help New College of Florida, which currently is at risk of losing a small portion of its state funding because of a low score. The eight other public universities would continue to be measured by the 10 criteria outlined by the state Board of Governors earlier this year.

UF and FSU will instead be judged on the 12 standards used in state law to designate them as the state's "pre-eminent" universities. The Board of Governors would have to iron out the details of how to implement the House plan and awarded money to the universities.

New College of Florida receives special treatment because it is the smallest of the group and doesn't yet offer any graduate degrees. The House plan swaps out one of the Board of Governors' criteria for New College -- average cost per undergraduate degree -- and replaces it with the number of students who receive a national award.

Continue reading "House panel votes to give UF, FSU separate performance funding plan" »

Senate education spending plan gets bi-partisan love

Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Bill Galvano unveiled his plan for funding education Tuesday.

Galvano wants to spend about $6,955 per student, an increase of 2.58 percent over last year.

His proposed budget increases the spending on public schools by $651 million. It sets aside $40 million for digital learning initiative, equipment and training; and $30 million to encourage schools to develop industry certification programs.

The proposal also pumps $100 million in new funds into the State University System performance funding, and $15 million in new funds into performance funding for the college system. And it increases the funding for Bright Futures Scholarships by $25 million, or 9.4 percent over last year.

The education budgets being considered in the Senate and the House are similar, though the lower chamber's proposal adds about $60 million more into the K-12 budget. The Senate has more of a focus on capital spending, Galvano said.

Galvano's preliminary plan got some bi-partisan love Wednesday.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, called the pitch a "historic education budget."

"It reflects a growing understanding that education truly is our number one priority," he said.

Said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach: "What a difference money makes."

Democrats also praised the proposal.

"It is nice to have money," Sen. Maria Lorts Sachs, D-Delray Beach, told Galvano. "You have allocated it in a very fair way."

Hundreds mourn former Gov. Reubin Askew at memorial

The memorial service for former Gov. Reubin Askew drew hundreds of people to a church in Tallahassee on Wednesday afternoon. (Watch it live on the Florida Channel.)

Gov. Rick Scott, former Gov. Charlie Crist, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, several members of Congress and dozens of state legislators attended the service at Faith Presbyterian Church. Most legislative committee meetings were canceled for the afternoon so lawmakers could attend.

Three eulogists were expected to speak: Askew’s son Kevin, former U.S. Rep. Jim Bacchus and former Florida State University president Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte

D’Alemberte was a House member from Miami when Askew was governor. Bacchus was a speech writer for Askew as governor and was a special assistant to Askew when he served as President Jimmy Carter’s U.S. trade representative.

“I know what to say. I’m just not sure I can say it,” Bacchus said. “I’m wondering where Reubin Askew’s speech writer is when I need him.”

More here.

Voucher advocate withdraws his nomination to FAMU board

A gubernatorial appointee to the Florida A&M University Board of Trustees withdrew his nomination on Wednesday, days after the Herald/Times raised questions about his lobbying activities.

Glen Gilzean is the vice president of advocacy and outreach at Step Up for Students, the nonprofit organization that manages Florida's school voucher program. Step Up is currently supporting a bill that would expand the program.

In November, the state opined that both Gilzean and Step Up for Students President Doug Tuthill would need to register as lobbyists. 

That presented a problem for Gilzean. State law prohibits university trustees from working as registered lobbyists.

Gilzean continued advocating for the bill. The Herald/Times confirmed that Gilzean had lobbied at least six lawmakers on the issue.

But he didn't submit his lobbyist registration until Friday. And he withdrew the paperwork Monday.

On Tuesday, a Senate panel was supposed to confirm Gilzean's nomination to the FAMU Board of Trustees. That decision was delayed.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Scott Wednesday, Gilzean said he had "foreseen no conflict between participation on FAMU’s board and my work as vice president of advocacy and outreach for the nonprofit Step Up For Students."

"But as the legislature this year considers a bill strengthening the Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students, a question has been raised about whether I should be formally registered as a lobbyist in order to advocate on behalf of these children," he said.

Gilzean said he had decided to "err on the side of caution and to register, which, according to statute, prevents me from serving as a trustee."

This wasn't the first time Scott appointed Gilzean to a public board.

In 2012, the governor tapped Gilzean to fill a vacant seat on the Pinellas County School Board.

Gilzean lost his bid for reelection a few months later.

Jacobo vows to make wide-ranging changes in wake of 'Innocents Lost'

Esther JacoboThe head of the state’s child welfare agency told a House committee Tuesday that the child deaths documented by the Miami Herald exposed a gap in the state’s safety net and, for the first time, she acknowledged it will take more services, and money, to fix it.

However, Esther Jacobo, interim secretary of the Department of Children & Families, maintained that the agency does not need to change its policies related to removing high-risk children from unsafe homes in the wake of the Miami Herald’s “Innocents Lost” series.

“We need to identify what those additional services are and what additional resources we may need,’’ she said, noting that the resource levels may vary from region to region.

The Herald chronicled the deaths of 477 children over six years whose families had a history with DCF. The stories found that the number of children who died of abuse or neglect spiked after child welfare administrators implemented an intensive family-preservation program that reduced the number of children in state care while slashing services and oversight for those who remained with troubled families.

Jacobo held up a copy of the Miami Herald and told the House Healthy Families Subcommittee that she had read the series, noting that it gave a face to child welfare issues that are not unique to Florida.

“I think that the takeaway is that we as Floridians are...really working together to find solutions,’’ she said after the meeting. “The conversations are all leading in the direction that something absolutely will be done.” Read more here.