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Is a showdown looming over voucher expansion bill?

The House Finance and Tax Subcommittee on Thursday gave its approval to the proposed expansion of the state school voucher program.

The bill will likely cruise through the House. But is a showdown with the Senate looming?

Senate President Don Gaetz has said the proposal won't pass in his chamber unless lawmakers require scholarship students to take the state tests. 

The House proposal makes no mention of the assessments. And after Thursday's meeting, Subcommittee Chairman Ritch Workman said he had no intention of adding that language to the bill.

"I don't think it's necessary," Workman said.

Florida's opportunity scholarship program provides private-school scholarships to about 60,000 low-income students. The program is funded by businesses, which receive dollar-for-dollar corporate tax credits for their contributions.

Lawmakers are considering increasing the cap on tax credits by $30 million over each of the next four years. The move would accommodate an additional 50,000 children.

The proposal would also allow businesses to claim credits on their sales taxes, opening up a new, more steady revenue stream for the scholarship program. And it would eliminate a requirement that students attend a public school for at least one year before receiving a scholarship.

Presenting the bill Thursday: Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican and longtime school administrator.

The arrangement was slightly unusual. Bills that are proposed by a committee, known as PCBs, are usually spearheaded by a member of that committee. Diaz does not sit on the House Finance and Tax Subcommittee.

Workman, R-Melbourne, said Diaz had the necessary expertise in education. 

"He has put more hours of his life into his bill than he cares to talk about," Workman said.

When it came time for public testimony, parents, pastors and principals spoke passionately about the scholarship program. One speaker, a principal in Tallahassee, said the scholarships had enabled gifted children to benefit from the small class sizes and creative curriculum at her private school.

Chanae Jackson Baker, the mother of a child with special needs, called upon lawmakers to invest in children.

"If you don't give them choices, they will be the Medicaid recipients and the food stamp recipients and the welfare recipients," she said.

The Florida Education Association and the League of Women Voters spoke out against the bill.

Democrats like Rep. David Richardson, of Miami Beach, also voiced opposition.

"My concern with this program is it is too much, too fast," Richardson said, noting that the administrative fees going to non-profit scholarship funding organizations would also rise. "It's a huge increase."

Rep. Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat, took issue with the scholarship program tapping into the state sales tax. "That will hurt our public education system because the sales tax dollars do fund our K-12 public education system right now," she said.

But Rep. George Moraitis, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, disagreed with that reasoning.

"Shouldn't the money follow the child?" he asked.

Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said the bill was really about providing choices to parents.

"It's a good thing that we are offering more hardworking families the choice to send their children to a school that best meets their needs," she said.

The 11-7 vote came down along party lines.

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