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5 posts from March 28, 2014

March 28, 2014

State officials abruptly cancel talk by FSU professor

From our friends at the Associated Press:

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida officials have abruptly canceled a talk by a Florida State professor and writer who has been critical of the administration of Gov. Rick Scott.

Diane Roberts, who does commentary for National Public Radio and writes columns for various publications, was supposed to give a talk at the state-owned Mission San Luis on April 3.

Roberts planned to discuss Florida's environment and problems with the state's rivers, lakes and springs.

Brittany Lesser, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Ken Detzner, said an "internal decision" was made within the secretary's office to cancel the talk.

Lesser said that Roberts topic did not fit with agency programs such as historical resources. She said that Roberts has been asked to come back later to talk about "our mission and programs."

A year later, Weatherford and Latvala best of buds on pension overhaul

LatvalaweatherfordLast year, Sen. Jack Latvala led the Senate insurrection that upended a massive overhaul of Florida’s pension system, which had been one of the top priorities of Florida Speaker Will Weatherford.

"I've been telling Will for two or three months that he didn't have the votes over here. Now he sees it, black and white,” Latvala said minutes after Weatherford’s bill died in the Senate, 22-18.

But this year, the two have been fast friends. Not only did they pose in a March 18 selfie -- with the chummy Twitter caption of “a winning combination” -- but Latvala is sponsoring SB 1400, which would allow undocumented immigrant students to pay cheaper tuition rates, a top priority of Weatherford’s.

That experience of working on the immigrant tuition bill brought the two closer together, Latvala said, subsequently providing an opening on the pension issue.

“The speaker is a reasonable man,” Latvala said. “I have been encouraging him to look in some other direction than what he’s been trying (on pension).”

How will the two come together on the pension issue? Well, it’s not exactly clear yet, but there were some big developments this week that will play into it.

On Thursday, House Republican leadership delayed the long-awaited committee debut of this year’s House bill on pensions, which would prohibit all new employees, except for those in public safety, from enrolling in the state pension system and require them instead to enroll in private investment plans that don’t provide a guaranteed benefit.

Meanwhile, SB 1114 on pensions, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, was scrapped. A study that was to provide an analysis of how the changes would affect the pension system wouldn’t be ready until April 21, Simpson said in Thursday letter to Senate President Don Gaetz. (It’s already been widely speculated Gov. Rick Scott didn’t want the study to be done in time for this year’s session.)

Instead, Simpson said, he wants to resurrect the legislation he was pushing last year -- SB 1392. While Weatherford’s bill was automatic -- new employees had no choice -- Simpson’s bill last year would have given most new employees nine months to decide between the state’s pension system and private investment plans. If they don’t pick, they default into the private investment plan.

While a study would be required to make sure that this plan is feasible, Simpson said he hopes to use the one that was conducted last year.

“I believe that the special study conducted last year may still be valid,” Simpson wrote Gaetz. “Or that updating the study from last year could be done relatively quickly allowing us to consider passage of this legislation this year.”

Latvala helped Simpson craft that bill, and he said he supports it 100 percent this year.

“It would not surprise me if I become a co-sponsor,” Latvala said.

He said he doesn’t worry about losing union support. He said most don’t object to the bill. The only quibble they have is the default provision, where employees who don’t choose a plan are steered into the 401(k)-style investment plan. But he said unions have nine months to educate their members and if employees don’t choose in that time, it’s their own fault.

“It’s up to them,” Latvala said.

But Robert Ascencio, president of the non-profit Florida Public Employees, which advocates for state workers, said he still opposes the measure.

“It’s a bad bill,” Ascensio said. “What about the employees without bargaining units? Who’s going to educate them? This is intended to erode or phase out the Florida Retirement System.”

When asked if he was working with Latvala to pass Simpson’s bill instead, Weatherford was non-committal.

"Senators Simpson and Latvala have worked very hard, and I appreciate their efforts to reform the Florida Pension System,” Weatherford said in a statement. “We look forward to bringing a pension bill forward again this year. I am optimistic that we will reach an agreement to help strengthen the fiscal future of our state."

Vote on voucher bill puts pressure on Senate

A bill combining the proposed expansion of the school voucher program and the creation of education savings accounts for special-needs students moved forward on Friday, winning the support of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, called the vote "an important step toward providing more Florida students with more opportunities to receive a quality education."

"This scholarship program has allowed tens thousands of students to rise to their full potential, and more opportunities will mean a brighter future for more students," Fresen said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the Senate as we continue to make the expansion of school choice for Florida's families a priority."

Fresen said the bill could be heard on the floor as early as next week.

Friday's party-lines vote did two things. First, it set the stage for a bitter partisan battle in House.

"There is no secret that our minority caucus did take a position to oppose this bill," said ranking Democratic member Rep. Dwayne Taylor, of Daytona Beach. "They only take those types of positions when they see troubling bills that they have some major concerns. This was one of them."

Taylor acknowledged that some Democrats had supported the program in the past. But he said the proposed expansion was too much, especially without a provision requiring students in the program to take the state exams. 

The vote also turned up the pressure on the Senate to take another look at the voucher language. Recall that Sen. Bill Galvano withdrew a similar proposal last week, saying there was not enough time to develop solid accountability language.

Friday's hearing brought out strong opinions from members of the committee.

Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, raised questions about accountability in the private schools participating in the voucher program. "We still don't know what is going on in private schools that accept public dollars," she said. 

She also took issue with the House strategy to combine the voucher bill with the education savings account bill. 

"I think putting these two voucher programs together is simply a Hail Mary," she said.

But Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said lawmakers should focus on the children.

"I know there are many moms and dads in Florida who feel like their needs for their children are not being met, and they become frustrated with the bureaucracy that they meet in these public school institutions," she said. "Our goal today is not to save the public school institutions. Our goal today is not to protect the school enrollment. Our job today, members, is to ensure that Florida students get the very best education opportunities that they can. Period."

Will other states delay use of SAVE for voter checks?

Florida is one of a handful of states that signed agreements with the Department of Homeland Security to use SAVE to search for non-citizens on voter rolls.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced Thursday that he was delaying his plan to start a new round of looking for non-citizen voters due to DHS revamping the SAVE website. DHS started changes to the website in February but may not finish the project until after the 2014 election however SAVE remains operational by agencies nationwide.

So we wondered if any other agencies that use SAVE for voter registration purposes have also halted efforts as a result of the website changes.

This week, the Virginia Secretary of the State Board of Elections signed an agreement to access SAVE but won’t start using it until staff receive training and the state sets rules for using the system.

“We have reached out to DHS to get a full understanding of the changes they are making to the system to determine how those changes may impact Virginia’s use of SAVE...” Edgardo Cortés, Deputy Secretary Virginia State Board of Elections told Naked Politics in an email. “No timeline has been set yet for starting to use the SAVE system.  No decisions regarding when we start utilizing the system will be made until we get the information from DHS about the planned changes to the website.

In 2005, Maricopa County, Ariz., was the first agency to enter into an agreement with the SAVE Program for voter registration, and a few other counties in Arizona were added later. By 2013, Florida, Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina had reached similar agreements -- and now Virginia has been added to the list in 2014. States with pending applications to use SAVE for voter lists include Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Oregon and Tennessee, DHS told PolitiFact in November.

As PolitiFact found, voter registration is not one of the main purposes of SAVE -- most of the uses of SAVE pertain to benefits or licenses. In fiscal year 2013 in Florida, there were about one million SAVE queries by Florida agencies, and the majority were for driver’s licenses and health and social services.


Rick Scott's 79-second press gaggle

A large media crowd descended on Gov. Rick Scott in Davie today after he celebrated the opening of the express lanes on Interstate 595.

But reporters didn’t have questions about the interstate project (the lanes opened a few days ago) -- they were there to grill him about the hot campaign stories of the week: the resignation of campaign finance chairman Mike Fernandez and Gonzalo Sanabria, a long-time Miami-Dade Expressway Authority Board member.

Scott took about three questions before he dashed off to his vehicle and left. From the start of his first answer to his departing “have a great day” lasted about 79 seconds.

Scott shed no new light on the controversies. Here is a partial transcript:

Q: Mike Fernandez resigned from your campaign, now Gonzalo Sanabria has resigned, he says you have disrespected and disparaged the Hispanic community in South Florida. What’s your answer?

A: “Mr Sanabria resigned after he was told he was not going to be reappointed. He voted for increases on the tolls. As you know I’m for keeping the costs low for Floridians. He was not going to be reappointed, he was told that, and that’s when he resigned....”

(Read the Miami Herald's full account of the Sanabria controversy.)

Q: “So this was sour grapes on his part? What about Mike Fernandez? He is very very upset with the direction of your campaign.”

A: “We are doing well. We are going to have record fundraising this quarter. We are headed in right direction. Look at what is happening in our state. Jobs have come back, our education system is getting better, we are almost in a 43 year low in our crime rate...”

Q: “How badly have you been damaged by what happened this week?”

A: “Oh gosh 6.2% percent unemployment. 33,000 private sector jobs in the month of February. 540,000 jobs since December 2010. Look at our education system, our 4th graders, No. 2 in the world in reading......”