May 24, 2018

Special session to boost education funding? It's not happening. Republicans vote for status quo.

By Jeffrey Solochek, Tampa Bay Times Corcoran and Sheve Jones

To almost no one's surprise, a last ditch effort to bring Florida lawmakers back to Tallahassee for another conversation about public education funding has failed.

A group of House Democrats, led by Reps. Shevrin Jones and Nicholas Duran, used an obscure law by which 20 percent of the Legislature could require a poll to determine whether a special session would take place.

Three-fifths of the members in each chamber would have to agree. The vote fell far short.

In the House, all 41 Democrats supported the measure. Not a single Republican did.

In the Senate, all 16 Democrats backed the call. Not one Republican joined them. In fact, the nearly half the Senate Republicans did not even participate in the survey, including former president Tom Lee (Hillsborough), future president Wilton Simpson (Pasco) and president pro tempore Anitere Flores (Miami-Dade).

Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced the survey results Thursday, after the noon deadline had passed. The outcome was all but certain two days earlier, though, as the emerging tally made clear the 60 percent threshold wouldn't be reached.

The Democrats made their push amid school leader complaints that the state's public education budget for the coming fiscal year did not include enough added funding to cover rising daily costs, while also not meeting the Legislature's demands for increased school security and mental health services.

Republican leaders fired back with a video insisting the state's education funding had reached record levels, and arguing the detractors misrepresented the budget. Gov. Rick Scott also stood by the spending plan, which he signed despite calls for a veto by superintendents and others.

Rep. Jones, the ranking Democrat on the House Education committee, said it was unfortunate the effort failed.

"I'm thankful for my Democratic colleagues for understanding and keeping true to our values, which we have consistently been fighting for," he said. "We will continue our commitment to fight on behalf of our teachers and on behalf of our students.

"How do we do that? The people will always rise."

Students, parents and educators are becoming fed up with a legislative system that does not share that priority, Jones said, suggesting the electorate will take matters into its own hands.

"We fight on," he said.

Soon after Detzner's official pronouncement that the special session hadn't passed, the Florida Education Association issued a statement noting that Scott easily could have called lawmakers back on his own, if he had the will.

"This is very sad news for our schools, but no surprise given the current political landscape," FEA president Joanne McCall said in the release. "It's sad news for all of us, because the whole state loses when public education is harmed. The only bright spot I see, going forward, is that we can change our political landscape this fall at the polls."

House Democratic leaders who called for the session could not be immediately reached for comment.

Related: Florida Dems use obscure law in last-ditch effort to call Legislature back for more school funding 

Photo: Rep. Shevrin Jones confers with House Speaker Richard Corcoran in a recent Florida legislative session. [The Florida House]

 

May 17, 2018

South Florida Dems use obscure law in last-ditch effort to call Legislature back for more school funding

 

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Rep. Shevrin Jones confers with House Speaker Richard Corcoran in a recent Florida legislative session. [The Florida House]


At the end of session, superintendents and the statewide teachers' union called for the Legislature to redo their education funding in the budget they were about to pass. When a special session seemed imminent on gambling issues, again, they made the same call, without success.

 

Now, Democrats have organized a last-ditch effort to use an obscure state law to poll lawmakers on their willingness to come back for a special session to address education funding.

State Reps. Shevrin Jones of West Park and Nicholas Duran of Miami said Thursday that they and 33 others have filed petitions with the Florida Secretary of State for the poll. This method of calling a special session circumvents the Republican Legislative leadership, who typically are the ones who must call any special sessions and declare its purpose.

The 35 total members are all Democrats from both the House and the Senate, though not all members from their party are included on the list. The required threshold is 32 members to force a poll:

The list of 35 total Democrats from the Florida Legislature who are forcing a poll for an education special session. (Provided by Rep. Shevrin Jones)
The list of 35 total Democrats from the Florida Legislature who are forcing a poll for an education special session. (Provided by Rep. Shevrin Jones)

Both Jones and Duran hail from the two counties, Broward and Miami-Dade, hit hardest by a change in the way the state calculates school funding this year, designed to direct more dollars to smaller districts. They, like the rest of the House members who aren't termed out, are up for re-election.

"In the aftermath of Parkland and the waning days of session, the Legislature took action for the safety of our schools," Duran said. "In our rush to do something we didn’t account for the conesequences of that bill 7026 and now the school districts are facing those consequences."

Since the passage of this year's budget as well as SB 7026, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, school districts have been scrambling to comply with the new safety requirements as well as their normal operations. Several are considering raising local property taxes.

Democrats tried the same tactic after the Pulse shooting in the summer of 2016, in an effort to force a special session vote on guns. They failed to garner enough support to call the session.

This year's final vote on the budget was taken on March 11, the Sunday after the legislative session was supposed to end but it went into overtime after the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting changed the entire direction of the session and caused lawmakers to reconcile with issues like school safety and gun rights not previously taking center stage.

Jones was not present for the vote on the budget. He said it was because after the Legislature's official end date he needed to go back to his full-time job as the executive director of the Florida Reading Corps, a branch of AmeriCorps. Duran voted yes, along with many other Democrats who argued against the budget but who ultimately voted for it.

"When  our members were presented with the budget, they were presented with something they did not like," Jones said. "But (some are) going to vote for it because there are some good things in there."

Despite the fact that Republicans have said repeatedly that they are proud of the investment they made this year in education, Jones said this poll at the very least will require every lawmaker to go on the record in an election year with their position on the current school funding levels.

It's unlikely the Democrats will succeed, but now that the Secretary of State has received Jones and Duran's petition, that office will send out the poll today. Lawmakers will have until noon on May 24 to respond, according to Sarah Revell from the Secretary of State's office.

May 08, 2018

Advocacy group asks Dept. of Corrections to turn over its budget documents

Julie Jones and prisonersA advocacy group representing a coalition pursuing prison and sentencing reform has filed a public records request with the Florida Department of Corrections in an effort to find out if other options were considered before the agency moved forward with a plan to cut $28 million from treatment and transition programs. 

Read more: Legislature left $28 million hole in prison budget. Now essential programs are cut.

"There are a number of better alternatives to addressing FDOC’s budget shortfall than cutting critical programs that are proven to help incarcerated people transition from prison to healthy, productive lives and prevent them from reoffending," wrote Shalini Goel Agarwal with the Florida Office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a member of the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform in the records request. "For instance, dozens of other states have adopted bipartisan criminal justice reforms that are reducing prison populations, saving tax dollars and improving public safety,''

The group says the agency, "the Scott administration and legislators have turned a blind eye to Florida’s excessive incarceration policies, and the financial strain resulting from over-incarceration."

The coalition suggests that Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers should have considered using rainy day funds "before announcing these misguided and dangerous budget cuts."

Specifically, it is looking for access to: 

● Electronic copies of all emails dated from March 11, 2018 to present related to the
recently announced budget shortfall and/or cuts to program funding sent to or from
Secretary Julie Jones, Chief Financial Officer Kimberly Banks, Budget and Financial
Management Chief Mark Tallent, and/or Community Programs Chief Shawn Satterfield.
● Copies of any cost analysis or report related to these budget cuts.

Download FLCCJR DOC records request - FINAL 050818

May 07, 2018

Top Democrat calls for "thorough review" of state move to trim Medicaid eligibility

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@elizabethrkoh

A top Democrat is calling on federal officials to conduct a “thorough review” of the state’s request to shorten the window for Medicaid retroactive eligibility, after demanding its application be corrected to reflect some senators’ concerns about what she called an "ill-advised" policy change.

Incoming state Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson wrote a letter Monday to the administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, criticizing the state’s decision to save money by shortening how long non-pregnant adults can retroactively qualify for Medicaid coverage. Gibson also criticized the state Agency for Health Care Administration’s application for saying it was “not aware of any concern or opposition raised by any member of either party” during budget talks.

State lawmakers approved a budget in the final days of the legislative session which authorized shortening the current 90-day period those patients can retroactively have medical bills covered under Medicaid after they apply. The current policy allows eligible patients under Medicaid to have recent medical expenses covered and ensures facilities are paid for services they provide.

The proposed change, which must be approved by the federal government, would shorten that period to up to 30 days within the month that eligible patients apply for Medicaid coverage. The state agency estimated the change would save about $98 million and could impact about 39,000 people.

In its application to the federal government, the agency's Deputy Secretary for Medicaid Beth Kidder wrote that because the change does not alter any qualifying criteria, provider rates or benefits, the change "cannot accurately be described as a 'cut.'"

But opponents say it is just that, questioning the state's estimates and saying the new 30-day policy could harm patients who might miss the application window and be forced to bear high medical costs, as well as leave facilities with unpaid bills and pressure to submit applications more quickly.

Gibson, in her letter, called on the agency to conduct “a thorough review of grossly shortening retroactive eligibility for life-saving medical care.”

The policy, “if approved... will saddle senior citizens, veterans, those with disabilities, and all of their families, with massive medical debt even able-bodied individuals would find impossible to pay,” she wrote.

She also objected to the agency's assertion it was unaware of any objections from legislators during the budget discussion. Some Democratic senators — including Sens. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, and Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami — questioned how patients with sudden traumatic injuries might be affected in budget talks and on the Senate floor.

The Jacksonville senator first issued a press release Friday afternoon calling on the agency to issue a correction, which prompted Agency Secretary Justin Senior to call her that night and say changes would be made, she said in a statement.

“In justifying its request, the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) falsified the record of events preceding the state legislature’s approval of the change during the debate over the upcoming state budget,” Gibson wrote Monday.

AHCA spokeswoman Mallory McManus said the agency wrote it was not aware of concerns “as no Senators contacted our Agency to ask questions or raise concerns." She said the agency would share Gibson’s comments with federal officials Monday but declined to clarify if it was submitting those comments as a correction.

“At the end of the day this was part of a budget that was passed by both the Florida House of Representatives and Senate, and is legislatively mandated,” McManus said.

If the request is approved, Florida would join four other states — including New Hampshire, Indiana, Arkansas and Iowa — in trimming the period of time patients have retroactive coverage. It would, however, be the first state that did not expand coverage under the Affordable Care Act to do so.

The state has until July 1 to have the change approved, when its budget goes into effect.

Photo: Florida Senate

April 19, 2018

As Florida lawmakers consider special legislative session, statewide teachers' union calls for more school funding

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ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times


The Florida Education Association aimed to put Florida's political leaders on the spot on Thursday, calling for them to address school funding if they are all required to come back to Tallahassee for a special session on gambling issues.

"The Florida Education Association calls on Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders to address the shortfall in education funding before the start of the next fiscal year," reads a statement from the group, released Thursday. "With political will, the money can be found."

The statement follows a similar request made last week by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

The group pointed out that Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $64 million's worth of projects in the 2018-2019 budget, money that will be kicked back to the state's general revenue account.

The FEA also references an agreement reached Wednesday between the state and the Seminole Tribe which guaranteed the tribe will pay $300 million in the next year to continue its exclusive right to offer banked card games like blackjack. However, the Legislature assumed the agreement would hold when it drafted its budget and therefore the $300 million is already spoken for.

In this year's budget, the per-pupil portion of classroom education funding saw an increase of only 47 cents, much lower than in previous years. And law enforcement and districts  have been scrambling since the Legislature required that every school have an armed person on every campus, whether that be a trained school staff member or a law enforcement officer.

Before the budget was passed in March, the state's superintendents and school leaders already asked the Legislature to increase the per-pupil spending. That didn't happen.

A decision over whether a special session will be held is expected by early next week. If lawmakers do come back up to Tallahassee, either the governor or the House Speaker jointly with the Senate President have to specify the specific purpose or purposes of the special session. Unless they declare that education funding is part of that purpose, it's unlikely the FEA's requests would be addressed.

When asked if Gov. Scott would include education funding as part of the "call" for a special session, the governor's office disputed there is a shortfall in education funding.

April 09, 2018

A month after Legislature failed to act on #MeToo, report finds Florida lags on women’s pay

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Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek (right) and Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, (center) both were sponsors of bills to combat sexual harassment during the 2018 session. The bills failed. SCOTT KEELER | Times

Florida women get smaller paychecks, participate in the workforce less often and have fewer professional or managerial jobs than the majority of their counterparts in other states, according to a report released Monday by several state and national groups.

Florida ranks near the bottom of the country for these metrics, and the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a national group which contributed to the report, gave Florida overall a "D+" for its overall performance on this issue. A state group called the Florida Women's Funding Alliance commissioned the report.

While the causes of these failures are complex, these findings came exactly a month after the Florida Legislature failed to address a problem that leadership from both chambers had said was a priority to fix: sexual harassment in the workplace.

"Research has shown that when women experience sexual harassment or worse in the workplace, the most common response is not to report it and take action to fix it — the most common response is they will quit or if they have series of experiences they'll leave the occupation entirely," said Julie Anderson, a senior research fellow for the Institute.

"So rather than staying in one place or advancing, the lateral moves and leaving contributes to the wage gap."

After the #MeToo movement hit the Florida Legislature with the disgraced departure of two male lawmakers accused of sexual misconduct, both Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran promised to address the issue.

But there were signs the bill, which would have established a sexual harassment task force and created stricter policies for state agencies and contractors, lacked momentum. Then the House attached its sexual harassment language to a broader ethics package the Senate had never heard in committee. The measure died in the Senate on the final night of the session.

"There is zero tolerance for sex harassment or any type of harassment … and that's already been implemented through our rules," Negron said outside the Senate chamber after it adjourned without taking up the bill. "The bill that came over from the House had deficiencies."

Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, was a co-sponsor of the House's version and said after she began working on this issue, women came out of the woodwork and told her their horror stories of harassment, including having to leave their jobs because of it.

"The issue, for a lot of women, they are simply not going to tell," she said. "They are going to endure it or leave the workplace and that hurts our state, our work force and our families."

Monday's report, which analyzed Census data, also found the gender wage gap is much greater for black and Hispanic women, who make about 59 cents for every dollar white men earn.

Despite this bad news, Florida has one of the smallest gender wage gaps in the country — about 88 cents for every dollar a man makes — and is on track to be the first state to close it at the current rate.

How is that possible?

Because in Florida, men's wages are falling faster than women's, according to Census data. This trend is happening in other states and began as early as 1975, and was furthered by the disappearance of manufacturing and construction jobs — jobs held mostly by men.

"That's why we say it's only 'progress' in air quotes," Anderson said. "Because we want everyone's wages to go up."

April 02, 2018

Proposal to end hospitals' certificate of need system pulled from CRC

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A proposal that would have ended the state's certificate-of-need process for approving hospitals was withdrawn Monday, just before it was set to move into the next stage of consideration for the November ballot as a constitutional amendment.

Proposal 54, which was sponsored by Constitution Revision Commission member Frank Kruppenbacher, would have linked the approval process for new hospitals to infection rates at other hospitals in the area. By doing so, it would have no longer allowed to state to limit hospital growth through the current certificate of need process. The CON process currently requires the state to approve hospitals and other health care providers like nursing homes to add more sites or services.

The proposed amendment did not reference the long-running certificates of need process directly, but it would have prohibited limiting hospital growth in any counties with at least one hospital with an infection rate above the state average. Deregulating the hospital industry by restricting or removing the program has long been a priority for some leaders in the Republican-dominated Legislature and for Gov. Rick Scott, a past hospital executive.

When the proposal moved forward last month, Kruppenbacher — who Scott appointed to the seat — dismissed the possibility that such a measure might advance in the Legislature, saying overhauling the system had to happen through the CRC. The powerful 37-member committee meets once every 20 years to choose proposals to put directly before voters, which voters can then pass by a 60 percent majority.

He did not respond to requests for comment Monday on why the proposal was pulled before the commission meets this week to refine the language of the remaining proposed amendments.

The Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, which represents public, nonprofit and teaching hospitals in the state, objected to the proposal and lauded its withdrawal Monday.

“Preserving Florida’s health care strategic planning process is vital for a strong safety net hospital system which provides the most highly specialized medical care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay,” said Lindy Kennedy, the group's executive vice president, in a statement. “With fewer commercially insured patients to help cover the costs of caring for the poor and uninsured, safety net hospitals would have been forced to cut vital services that benefit all Floridians, such as neonatal care, trauma, burn, and transplants."

The withdrawal is part of the further culling of dozens of proposal from the commission's consideration: Another health care proposal, which would have added a "bill of rights" for residents in long-term care facilities, was withdrawn last month after sponsor Brecht Heuchan conceded it was unlikely to have the votes in its current form.

No Casinos calls special session talk 'fictional crisis'; Tribe's lawyer says state loss of revenue is not imminent

CasinoFlorida legislative leaders are expected to decide this week whether to pursue a special session to expand slot machines in some counties while it asks the Seminole Tribe to renew its gaming deal with the state, but the head of the No Casinos effort on Monday called the idea a "last ditch effort by gambling interests" and a lawyer for the tribe s there is no need to hurry.

In a letter to House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, John Sowinski, president of the group that has put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that will inhibit gambling expansion, suggested it was "a fictional crisis manufactured by gambling lobbyists."

"The urgency of this matter is curious, since no facts have changed since the end of session that would now make this such an enormous priority that it could merit a call for a special session of the Legislature,'' he wrote. 

No Casinos has succeeded in getting enough signatures to put an amendment on the ballot to require a statewide vote to expand gambling options in Florida. If the measure succeeds, legislators will have less influence over all gaming decisions.

The amendment is backed by Disney Worldwide and the Seminole Tribe, both of which oppose any expansion outside of the tribe's seven existing casinos. The amendment exempts gaming expansion if it involves Indian tribes, such as the Seminoles and their Hard Rock casinos.

Last week, Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes and Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who has been designated by Republicans to be next Senate president, announced they are considering a special session because of budget concerns that the tribe may withhold payments to the state because of a legal settlement they reached as a result of a lawsuit in federal court over designated player games at pari-mutuel facilities.

Under the settlement, the tribe agreed not to withhold the more than $300 million in annual payments it now gives the state as part of its compact to operate casinos on its seven reservations until the end of March.

The settlement gave the Legislature enough time to outlaw the games, which the court said violated the tribal compact. Lawmakers adjourned without passing any gaming legislation and nothing has changed, except a newfound concern about the tribe stopping payment. 

Barry Richard, the Tallahassee lawyer who has argued the cases for the Seminole Tribe, told the Herald/Times Monday "the only reason the tribe would terminate payment is if they think there is a substantial impact on their financial circumstances, or they think they are paying too much money for the exclusivity -- given that it's been infringed upon. Then, they would terminate or reduce the payments."

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation has been working to enforce the settlements, closing down designated player games at pari-mutuels that operated them, and "the tribe is satisfied that DBPR has been acting aggressively,'' Richard said. 

However, a new threat to the tribe's bottom line has emerged: a new kind of slot-machine look-alikes that have proliferated at strip malls and convenience stores. The tribe is now suing the owners of those games and their landlords in Jacksonville and, Richard said, it is likely the tribe will let those lawsuits play out before it would withhold payments to the state. Those cases are not set for trial until June. 

But, Richard added, "something is going to have to happen. They are not going to let these machines proliferate."

So is there a need for a special session? 

Richard said the tribe is always open to listening. "If the legislature wants to bring them a proposal that's been signed off on by everybody, they are happy to look at it,'' he said. 

But, he warned, "the tribe doesn't want to have non-productive conversation with one chamber or the legislature, or some members of leadership, and then have it go back to others who disagree with it."

Galvano confirmed Monday that he has not had any substantial talks with the tribe about the compact. 

Meanwhile, Sowinski notes that many perceive the talk of a special session is more about the potential for legislators to raise money from the parimutuel industry, who are among the most reliable contributors in the state.  Corcoran is a likely candidate for governor and several others are pursuing state Cabinet positions and could benefit from a special session that would attract the industry's money.

But, Sowinski argued, convening a special session could have the opposition effect if the industry wants to defeat the proposed amendment. 

"You can tell the gambling interests and assure the people of Florida that public policy is not for sale in Tallahassee by resisting gambling lobbyist pressure for a special session,'' Sowinski wrote. "Convening a special session that will be seen as a genuflection to the gambling industry would provide voters with a perfect illustration of why Amendment 3 is so badly needed."

Read Sowinski's letter here:  Download No Casinos letter re special session 4-2-18

 

March 30, 2018

Gov. Scott signs 'resign to run' bill, forcing lawmakers to choose to keep their seats or run for Congress

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks after the end of the legislative session at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee on March 11, 2018. Flanking Scott are Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, left, and Senate President Joe Negron. Mark Wallheiser AP

Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed a bill that would require local and state lawmakers to resign from their current seats in order to run for Congress.

The so-called "resign to run" bill now forces nearly a half-dozen local and state lawmakers to choose between holding onto their current seats or take the risk of running for the Miami congressional seat that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring from.

Scott also vetoed his first bill of the year, obscure legislation that involves expanding the Palm Beach County Housing Authority from five seats to seven.

Normally, seats on the board are filled by the governor, but the bill allowed the Palm Beach County Commission to fill the two new seats. County commissioners were pushing for the bill so they could have more oversight over the troubled agency.

But Scott vetoed it, saying that the new seats should be filled by the governor.

The governor on Friday signed HB 215, a motor vehicle bill which included a controversial amendment that allows Florida International University to open a road to its Biscayne Bay campus through an environmental preserve in North Miami.

The university had cited the Parkland shooting in its arguments that the current campus, which only has one road in and out, needed a second entry and exit point for school safety. Efforts to open up a second road through the preserve have been brought repeatedly before the Legislature since at least 2011.

Despite opposition from local officials, the FIU language was successfully added to the motor vehicle bill in the waning days of session.

Herald staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.

March 29, 2018

After data scandal, Florida attorney general's office wants in-person meeting with Facebook

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Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi

One of Attorney General Pam Bondi's top deputies is demanding an in-person meeting with executives at Facebook to talk about the release of more than 50 million users' personal information.

In a Wednesday letter to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Bondi's Privacy Bureau chief, Patrice Malloy, wrote that she expects a meeting set up by the end of the week.

"Please contact me by the close of business on Friday, March 30, to arrange for a mutually agreeable location, date and time with the goal of facilitating further discussion regarding this time-sensitive matter," Malloy wrote.

She included a list of nine questions she wanted answered after the New York Times revealed that Facebook users' information was harvested by a company called Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

Malloy called the release "troubling," and she asked to know the type of data that Facebook released, whether the company was paid for the data, which third-party applications also used the data, and how Facebook learned its policies were violated.

Attorneys general in 37 other states and territories sent a similar letter to Zuckerberg earlier this week, but Bondi did not sign it. A spokeswoman for Bondi said the office wasn't given enough time to join the letter.