June 13, 2017

With the governor's signature of HB 7069 expected, is a legal challenge coming?

Gary farmerWith Gov. Rick Scott expected to sign the controversial charter-school friendly bill -- that incited a groundswell of criticism -- at a press conference somewhere in Orlando on Thursday, opponents are mounting a last minute effort to lay the groundwork for a legal challenge or legislative retooling of HB 7069. 

In a letter to the governor on Tuesday, Sen. Gary Farmer, a freshman Democrat from Lighthouse Point, urged the governor to veto the bill because it would "dramatically reduce the ability of school districts across the state to devote resources towards improving our public education" as well as allowing private management companies to profit off taxpayer dollars, and local communities to be cut out of zoning decisions relating to schools.  Download SenatorFarmerLetterRe7069

But Farmer, a lawyer, also outlined his case -- for why he believes it could be challenged on the grounds that it passed illegally -- and in violation of the Senate rules and may be ripe for a legal challenge.

"I do intend to look into it,'' Farmer told the Herald/Times. "Process is supposed to matter. There are supposed to be boundaries and limitations so everybody is on equal footing. When we don't follow the rules, it erodes and denigrates the process."

For example, he said, HB 7069 morphed from a six-page bill "which dealt entirely with the Best and Brightest Scholarship Program" to a 278-page amendment" that included provisions that were the subject of 55 other bills "the vast majority of which either had been voted down in committee or had stalled."

In a lengthy point of order on the Senate floor on May 8, Farmer noted that the conference committee on May 5, the last scheduled day of session, between House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron settled up the final budget package but the final wording of HB 7069 was rolled out two hours after they had met at the conference. At that meeting, Corcoran and Negron did not take a vote on the final budget agreement, except to announce that the agreement was made.


Although most of the bills’ provisions had been discussed at least conceptually by one of the chambers, not all of them had. The concept of the “Schools of Hope” was only discussed for only 90 minutes in the Senate prior to the final passage.

A Herald/Times analysis of HB 7069 also found that HB 7069 not only included language from 55 bills but also from bills never before discussed or considered publicly and — in one case — a bill that was defeated by a Senate committee.

For example, a new bonus scheme whereby all “highly effective” teachers would get $1,200 in each of the next three years and all “effective” teachers could get up to $800 as never discussed before in either chamber.

House Pre-K-12 Appropriations Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, acknowledged the language was new but defended it. “That’s new, granted,'' he told reporters on May 5. "But it’s within the context of teacher bonuses”  as part of the “Best & Brightest” program.


The First Annual Rick Scott-Richard Corcoran Reconciliation Tour

ScottSOS030717Remember when Gov. Rick Scott called House Speaker Richard Corcoran anti-family, a job-killer, and a career politician to boot? Or when Corcoran called Scott "a governor who won't help us" and who only cared about protecting an "absolute cesspool" at Enterprise Florida?

Scott and Corcoran now realize they're both better off congratulating each other than kicking each other. On Tuesday, the two Republicans will hop-skotch around the state on what Scott calls the "Fighting for Florida's Future Victory Tour" to celebrate money for K-12 students, tourism, job creation and the dike at Lake Okeechobee.

Scott has done similar fly-arounds in past years to draw media attention to tax cuts and jobs, but this one looks more like The Rick Scott and Richard Corcoran Reconciliation Tour, and cynics will surely say it's mostly about Scott's political future, and Corcoran's, rather than Florida's.

"The message is that we're on the same page in fighting for jobs and fighting for a world-class education," Corcoran said Monday.

The fly-around begins at Jungle Island in Miami and travels to West Palm Beach, Fort Myers, Tampa and Jacksonville Beach.

Corcoran chartered his own plane through the Republican Party of Florida (it wouldn't look right for the speaker who banned House members from hitching rides on lobbyists' planes to ride with the governor, who by law is a principal represented by lobbyists, creating a gift ban problem). Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also was invited to participate, but he had left for a long-planned Senate GOP golf tournament fund-raiser in San Diego before the governor finalized his travel plans.

The fact that Scott wants Corcoran at his side on this tour is the strongest indication yet that the governor will sign HB 7069, the sweeping school choice bill that Corcoran calls "transformational" that has been under attack for weeks by educators across Florida. The word is that Scott will sign the bill Thursday, again with the once-vilified Corcoran at his side, as the two men's schedules converge in Orlando.

June 12, 2017

Janet Cruz considering county commission run in Tampa



State Rep. Janet Cruz, the Democratic leader of the Florida House, sounds like she’s going to run for Hillsborough County Commission next year.

Officially, Cruz says she’s “considering” a run. The Tampa lawmaker, who is term limited in the House next year, is waiting until later this summer to file for commission District 1, currently held by Republican Sandy Murman.

“I need to take care of the people’s work here,” she says. “(I need to) make sure that we don’t have another special session so that I can file, which will probably be in a month or two.”

Cruz sees transportation as a key issue for the county in upcoming years, as more and more people move to Tampa Bay and the need for updated transit and infrastructure gets more urgent.

She notes that she would fit in well on the commission, which includes several other former state lawmakers who made the move from Tallahassee to the county level, many after being forced out of the Legislature by term limits.

“I think it’s a good transition from the state House and state funding to county funding,” she said.

Photo: House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa. (SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times)

June 10, 2017

John Morgan’s next target: Swaying the Trump administration on pot


Morgan-stoneOrlando trial lawyer John Morgan scored a big win this week as state lawmakers passed a medical marijuana bill, which Gov. Rick Scott plans to sign.

Morgan bankrolled two political campaigns to legalize medical pot, finally succeeding in 2016. And though he plans to sue the state over a smoking ban in the law, he moved the needle on marijuana in the conservative Florida Legislature.

But what’s he up to next?

Morgan is contemplating a run for governor. And he’s keeping tight-lipped about whether he’ll actually jump into a crowded field.

Whether he runs or not, Morgan has started building relationships within the White House’s inner circle. He spent Saturday with conservative strategist and Trump ally Roger Stone talking about federal marijuana policy. Morgan’s fashioning himself as a Florida pot ambassador of sorts.

“Roger Stone speaks to President Trump on a regular basis,” Morgan tells the Times/Herald. “I am urging him to urge the president to remove marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. The president would gain the respect of many on this issue.”

Decriminalizing marijuana is one of the policy ideas Morgan has suggested as a priority if he does run for office. As is raising the minimum wage, which he has also considered pushing as a constitutional amendment.

Right now, though, he says he’s watching to see who else gets in the race.

“To me it is like dating,” he said Saturday. “You have a feeling when someone wants to go out on a date with you. I will know when the time is right. If Florida wants a fighter for them.”

Photo: Roger Stone and John Morgan. (via @RogerJStoneJr on Twitter)

June 09, 2017

Scott signs 'Stand Your Ground' change, religious expression in school, 14 other new laws


Among 16 measures Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on Friday, he endorsed two high-profile bills that were linked by a late-session compromise: one that makes a significant change to Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law and another that fortifies the right to religious expression in public K-12 schools.

Effective immediately under SB 128, state attorneys will now bear the burden to prove in “Stand Your Ground” cases why a criminal defendant can’t claim immunity from prosecution.

The highly controversial legislation — two years in the making — was supported by the National Rifle Association, which argued it clarifies the intent of the “Stand Your Ground” law enacted 12 years ago.

Full details here.

Photo credit: AP

Dems on K-12 funding: 'The increase is helpful but more is needed'

Florida Legislature (14)


Some House Democrats on Friday criticized a new K-12 schools budget for 2017-18 that would boost spending by $100 per student over this school year — calling the additional dollars a “hollow victory” and “not enough” to truly address public education.

“I believe the increase is helpful but more is needed,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami. “Florida is the third largest state in the nation, yet our per-pupil funding is still $3,000 below the national average.”

“We’re underfunding public education,” agreed Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura. “That’s a mistake. That sells short the future of our state.”

“Public education has been the great leveler in this country; it’s been the main means of advancement for people of modest means,” Geller added, before making reference to a $419 million, charter school-friendly bill (HB 7069) lawmakers passed last month: “We’re putting way too much money into non-public education at the expense of public education.”

RELATED FROM POLITIFACT: “Florida House speaker touts record education spending, but there’s more to grade”

The increased funding — addressed in a contentious three-day special session this week — was a compromise between Gov. Rick Scott and House and Senate leaders after Scott a week ago vetoed the Legislature’s initial K-12 budget, deeming it insufficient.

In calling lawmakers back to Tallahassee, Scott asked for $215 million more in state money for K-12 in order to raise the per-pupil level by $100, an increase of 1.4 percent.

Full details here.

Photo credit: AP

Senate passes medical marijuana bill, teeing up House vote this afternoon



Lawmakers look to be on track to pass sweeping medical marijuana legislation this afternoon.

The Senate okayed the bill, negotiated between leaders of both chambers after they failed to reach agreement during their regular session, by a vote of 28-8 Friday afternoon. 

The legislation (SB 8A) passed Friday sets in motion a plan to license 10 new growers by October, bringing the statewide total to 17. It allows patients to use cannabis pills, oils, edibles and “vape” pens with a doctor’s approval but bans smoking.

"Now is the time to do this," Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said, saying the bill will increase access for patients who need access to the drug.

A House vote is expected this afternoon, but because the bill was negotiated by leaderhsip, it is expected to pass.

In last-minute maneuvers, senators added new language to require growers and production sites have training in food safety standards.

The bill, which implements a constitutional amendment passed with 71 percent of the vote, has broad, bipartisan support.

Still, some within the Legislature oppose it. They come from two camps: Those who oppose medical marijuana to begin with, and others who say the policy negotiated privately by the House and Senate doesn’t go far enough to implement what the voters wanted. In particular, they called out the ban on smoking and the limitations on who can get licenses.
“I don’t believe that this bill implements the will of the constitutional amendment that the people of Florida voted for,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “I’ve heard a lot of friends and colleagues say that we’ve got to do something, but that’s not how I feel about this bill. I think we’ve got to do the right thing, not just something."

Photo: Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, listens to debate on the medical marijuana bill he sponsored Friday. (AP)

Senator floats idea: Another special session to fix HB 7069

Florida Legislature (40)


Lawmakers are supposed to wrap up on Friday a contentious special session that brought them back to Tallahassee for three days to resolve budget disputes over K-12 funding and jobs and tourism spending.

But regardless if that’s successful, one key Republican senator says the Legislature’s work shouldn’t be over and that one more return trip to the Capitol this month would be in order.

Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons told the Herald/Times he wants Gov. Rick Scott to veto a controversial K-12 schools bill (HB 7069) — which Simmons has deemed “fundamentally and fatally flawed” — and call lawmakers back for a second special session to redo it.

“That’s the solution that I and, I think, others would love to have,” said Simmons, of Altamonte Springs. “He doesn’t have to just say, ‘I veto,’ and therefore nothing will be accomplished. He can do what he did here.”

Full details here.

Photo credit: AP

Funding for HB 7069 left alone after Senate backs off

Florida Legislature (22)


Florida senators wanting a second crack at stopping a contentious $419 million education reform bill that narrowly passed the Legislature last month were unsuccessful on Thursday in defunding it to redirect the dollars to general K-12 public school spending.

Broward County Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer led the charge to undo HB 7069, after Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons — earlier passionately defiant — backed off his plans to force lawmakers to revisit the legislation during a three-day special session, even though it’s not on the Legislature’s restricted agenda.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, of Land O’Lakes, and his Republican caucus have dismissed the Senate’s effort as a waste of time and said even if the Senate approved changes to the HB 7069 funding, they wouldn’t support them. The bill is a top priority of Corcoran’s.

But Senate Democrats cast Thursday as the day for the Senate to stand up for itself and “redo” the May 8 result when the legislation passed by one vote.

Full details here.

Photo credit: AP

Florida Senate set to roll back hospital cuts, but don't expect the House to go along

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Senators are poised to vote today to roll back $260 million in cuts to Medicaid that they passed during the regular session, bringing hospital funding yet again into a political stalemate between the House and Senate.

During regular session, lawmakers agreed to $521 million in cuts to hospital payments, with about $92 million coming from Tampa Bay.

The cuts were part of the budget deal that led to the end of regular session in May.

But Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, says the Senate wasn't happy with that level of cuts, even though the final number was less than what the House or Gov. Rick Scott wanted.

"If we're going to be up here trying to fix the budget, then let's fix the budget," said Flores, the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations chairwoman, on Thursday.

Senators have proposed spending another $100 million in state money to shore up the cuts for one year. With federal matching funds, that's a reduction of roughly $260 million from what is in the budget Scott signed last week.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, says it isn't going to happen, though.

For one thing, it's not formally on the agenda for special session, he told reporters Thursday. But for another, he views hospitals as profitable enterprises and has equated increased spending to a handout for hospital CEOs.

"We're very happy with where we are with the funding for hospitals that we did," Corcoran said. "I think they'll be fine."

With the clock ticking toward a scheduled Friday end of the special session and no resolution in sight on the two issues that originally brought lawmakers back to Tallahassee -- education spending and economic development -- Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has made demands if Corcoran and Scott want his suppport of a deal on those other issues. Among the demands: more hospital spending.

It makes Flores think Corcoran's opposition to restoring the cuts may change.

"There will be at some point an endgame, be it on Friday, or be it two Fridays from now," Flores said. "There will be an endgame beyond what just the speaker and the governor agreed to."

Photo: Sens. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, share a laugh on the Senate floor. (Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times)