March 22, 2018

Proposal encouraging district-charter school competition moves closer to ballot

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The proposal to amend Florida's constitution has been championed by Miami leaders, including Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. C.M. GUERRERO

A proposal to loosen requirements on the state's highest-performing school districts so they can better compete with charter schools moved forward Wednesday, putting it one step closer to being on the ballot in November.

The measure, Proposal 93, was approved by the obscure yet powerful Constitution Revision Commission, the 37-member body that meets every 20 years in Florida to put constitutional amendments on the ballot. All proposals that have made it this far still have to be officially passed in another vote in April to be on the ballot.

This proposal would allow high-performing districts, graded an "A" or "B" for example, to become designated as an "innovation school district" (changed from its previous name of "charter districts"). Those districts would have more autonomy over their curriculum, facilities and hiring practices, for example, that charter schools already enjoy.

"I believe in choice ... it's also a choice to go to a public school," said Roberto Martinez, an influential Miami attorney and a Republican, who sponsored Proposal 93. "What this proposal seeks to do is to provide public school systems that are high-performing the same flexibility we are giving charter schools ... to give them the flexibility and innovation to allow them to excel."

This proposal nearly died in committee in January, as some members of the CRC expressed concern that this was too radical a step to put directly into the constitution. But on Wednesday it moved forward with a 24-9 vote, signifying enough support to possibly bring it to the finish line.

Previously, the Florida Education Association — the statewide teachers' union — said they agreed with the concept but were cautious about the wording and interpretation. One of the proposal's biggest supporters is Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Martinez said he has not heard from any district in opposition.

March 20, 2018

Parkland families push for progress in Washington before the March for Our Lives



The families of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are among the most powerful lobbyists in Washington right now.

Lawmakers from both parties are willing to rearrange their schedules for an in-person meeting with a group of people who have already successfully shepherded a gun bill through the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature that was opposed by the National Rifle Association.

But the Florida Legislature is a part-time body, bound by time constraints to pass bills within a few weeks. Congress is under no such pressure, so many bills that have strong support from both parties can still languish for years.

“We don’t move as fast as Florida legislatures do,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said. “This Congress, with 500-something members, represents a vast and diverse country and as a result there are people in different parts of the country that have different views on these issues.”

The families of the Parkland victims have varying beliefs about access to firearms. Some, like Fred Guttenberg, want to ban all assault-style weapons. Others, like Ryan Petty, are concerned that a debate about banning assault weapons will shift the conversation into a partisan fight where nothing gets accomplished.

But the victims’ families are united behind three bills in Washington, and they’re pushing to get two of them passed before the March for Our Lives on Saturday. The families are discussing legislation through Slack, an instant messaging application that allows users to break different topics into channels of discussion.

“We’re probably one-upping the kids on that,” Petty said of the parents’ use of technology. “We put a proposal in one of the channels and then discuss it. I’ve been the liaison this past week, so as I was speaking with [Sen. Orrin] Hatch, Rubio, [Sen. Mitch] McConnell’s office, I posted the messages into our group.”

Petty said the parents come together and read the various bills and proposals in Slack, then one of them will write a statement either in favor or against the proposal before a final vote. The families don’t come out in favor or against something unless there’s a consensus.

But he acknowledges lobbying for legislation in Washington is “absolutely tougher” than trying to pass bills in Tallahassee. 

Read more here.

Pinellas sheriff, three parents named to 16-member Parkland shooting commission

Gov. Rick Scott led a 90-minute discussion of possible solutions to gun violence at the state Capitol. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is at left and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is at right. [Scott Keeler - Times]

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri will lead a state commission investigating the missteps that led to the February massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School, Gov. Rick Scott announced Tuesday.

Joining Gualtieri on the commission are the fathers of three children killed in the  Feb. 14 shooting, along with sheriffs, police chiefs and school officials from around the state.

The creation of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission was part of sweeping legislation in response to the massacre, which killed 14 students and three adults.

The commission was given broad powers to uncover the failures that led to the shooting and come up with recommendations on how to make schools safer, with a Jan. 1, 2019, deadline to produce an initial report.

Commissioners can subpoena records relating to the shooting, and it can compel witnesses to testify.

Here are the people appointed to the commission:

Ryan Petty, whose daughter, Aliana, was killed in the shooting.

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was killed in the shooting.

Max Schachter, whose son, Alex, was killed in the shooting.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri

State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation

Brevard County Schools Superintendent Desmond Blackburn

Citrus County School Board member Douglas Dodd

Martin County School Board member Marsha Powers

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen

Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd

Miami Shores Police Chief Kevin Lystad

Auburndale Police Chief Chris Nelson

Indian River County Undersheriff James Harpring

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett

Centerstone Florida CEO Melissa Larkin-Skinner

March 19, 2018

NRA hits Corcoran by name for supporting post-Parkland gun bill

2018-03-19 13_50_29-NRA-ILA _ Florida Alert_ We Were Born at Night But It Wasn’t Last Night  Mr. Spe
A screen grab from the NRA email blast

As Republican Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran mulls over a run for governor, the National Rifle Association signified in an email blast Monday that it won't be making things easy for him.

"Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran (R) is adding insult to injury by calling the betrayal of law-abiding firearms owners 'one of the greatest Second Amendment victories we've ever had,'" reads the release, written by longtime Florida NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer. "That is complete nonsense and ignores the unconstitutional gun control included in the bill."

Although the post does not mention Corcoran's potential run for governor, it appears to be the first about any of the candidates in this race.

Hammer is referencing a report by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in which Corcoran talked about the Legislature's response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting while he attended the Lakewood Ranch Republican Club's monthly meeting.

According to the paper, Corcoran was specifically referring to the measure to end "gun-free zones" on school campuses through an optional program to arm school staff. The new law, already signed by Gov. Rick Scott, is tied to $400 million's worth of funding for more mental health professionals and armed cops on campus.

It also prohibits the sale of bump stocks, raises the minimum age to purchase any firearm from 18 to 21 and creates a three-day waiting period for gun buys — problematic for the NRA.

Corcoran was previously given an "A" rating from the NRA, but has stood firm with moderates in the Florida Legislature that the bill was the right thing to do following the deaths of 17 students and staff in Parkland. The NRA announced it is suing the state merely hours after Scott signed it.

Corcoran, an underdog in terms of fundraising and name recognition, has said he will decide in coming weeks if he will join the Republican race for governor.

If so, he will likely face more attacks from the right from his opponents, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis.

Putnam has said he is against raising the age to purchase a gun, meanwhile on Fox News, DeSantis predicted the Constitution will be on the side of the NRA.

March 13, 2018

Lawyers in the Florida Legislature try again to get rid of ethics rule

Florida Budget
Spectators line the balcony as Senate President Joe Negron speaks at the end of the legislative session at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Sunday, March 11, 2018. Mark Wallheiser AP

On Friday afternoon, in the frantic final hours of the legislative session, Florida's Ethics Commission issued an extraordinary press release expressing "deep concern" and warning senators not to pass a bill that would have gutted part of the state’s ethics rules.

The bill didn't pass, but commissioners are worried after lawmakers have tried three times in the last two years to get rid of an obscure ethics rule dealing with lawyers serving on city and county commissions.

Currently, ethics rules say a lawyer with the Gunster law firm representing a trash company, for example, can't go before a local board in which another Gunster lawyer is a member.

The reasons are obvious and irreconcilable, ethicists say. Even if the board member discloses the conflict of interests, the board member could still easily influence the outcome of a bid in other ways, by giving his law partner advice on how to influence the board, or by influencing county staff about the bid. Even the board member's presence could influence his or her fellow board members.

"No matter which way you turn it, it’s just an inherent conflict," Ethics Commission Executive Director Virlindia Doss said Monday.

Nevertheless, lawyers in the Legislature are making a bipartisan effort to do away with the rule.

The example that prompted the ethics commission's warning came from Rep. Daniel Perez, a Republican lawyer from Miami who successfully amended a bill in the last week of session. His amendment allowed lawyers to present clients before boards in which their law partners sit, as long as the board member disclosed the conflict and didn't vote on it.

But Perez wasn't the only one. An hour before the ethics commission sent its press release, Sen. Perry Thurston, a lawyer and Democrat from Lauderhill, attached a word-for-word copy to another bill. He didn't respond to requests for comment.

Neither made it into law. Perez on Friday appeared confused as to why the ethics commission would be opposed to his amendment.

"I respect them, and I understand that they’re doing what they believe is in their best interests," he said. "I’m not sure that they understand the amendment."

But they did understand the amendment, because they'd seen it before. In 2015, then-Sen. Don Gaetz tried to do it. And in the waning days of the 2017 session, Sen. Rob Bradley, a lawyer and Republican from Fleming Island, tried to slip a similar amendment into another bill.

His amendment prompted the Ethics Commission to warn lawmakers in August, in advance of the 2018 session, against changing the rule.

"The Commission is wrong on this issue," Bradley said in a text message on Monday. "Hopefully, the Legislature addresses this matter next session."

Stripping away the rule wouldn't just benefit local officials. More than one in five lawmakers is a lawyer, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who works for Broad & Cassell, and Senate President Joe Negron, who resigned from the Gunster law firm last year. Any or all could run for local office when they're term-limited out of the Legislature.

In its press release, ethics commissioners said they were adamantly against any changes to the rule.

"The Commission feels so strongly about the importance of this public protection that in its 2018 legislative recommendations it specifically requested that this precedent not be relaxed in any way," the press release states.

Doss, the Ethics Commission executive director, said she could not remember commissioners ever issuing a press release advocating lawmakers vote one way or another on a bill.

"I think it really concerned them that in the last two years, this has come up as a floor amendment on the last few days of session," she said. "It does keep coming up again and again."

March 12, 2018

Florida lawmakers approve last-minute change on behalf of powerful lobbyist

SCOTT KEELER | Times Senate President Joe Negron and Senator Rob Bradley talk to reporters during the last week of the 2017 Florida Legislative session.

In the last 45 minutes of the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers on Sunday approved creating a new section of law on behalf of a powerful lobbyist.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, created a new chapter of the Florida statutes for online handyman services like Handy. The new statutes make clear that the handymen used by Handy are independent contractors, not employees.

Senators approved it after barely 10 minutes of discussion. Immediately after, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, walked across the Senate floor to shake Bradley's hand.

When asked after why the amendment didn’t go through the full committee process, like most bills, Bradley said he believed the amendment didn’t change anything.

He said all it did was make sure that companies did not get sued over such employee-contractor questions. Uber has been sued in multiple states, including in Florida, over whether its drivers are employees or independent contractors, raising questions over whether the company owes unemployment and other benefits.

"I don’t think anybody’s rights or responsibilities changed with what we did,” he said. "What we did is ensure that there will not be litigation on these questions.”

He said that the app Handy, being represented by the powerful lobbyist Brian Ballard, came to him asking for the change. He said he supported the change because of he is a fan of such apps.

"I’ve always been a big fan of Uber, Lyft,” he said. "So when it was brought to my attention, it fit right in to my general worldview when it comes to these types of economic freedom matters."

Senate President Joe Negron defended the last-minute attachment of the amendment to benefit one particular company. 

"It is a recognition that the Uber model is going to spread to other industries and we were recognizing that fact to clarify that doesn't create an employment situation," he said. 
He also defended the decision to present it as a last-minute amendment, rather than a stand-alone bill. 
"This issue has been around for several weeks and has been discussed and we were looking creatively for an opportunity to address it and the tax package seemed to be a good fit," Negron said.
Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

March 09, 2018

Human trafficking bill dies on a technicality

SCOTT KEELER | Times Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, watches as Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, decides that Book's human trafficking bill could be ruled out of order on Thursday, March 8, 2018. State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, in the background, made the motion to rule it out of order. The bill died on another technicality Friday night.

A bill that would have allowed victims of human trafficking to sue hotels failed in the waning hours of the Legislative session Friday night.

It was killed after Republicans grilled the bill sponsor, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and protested the bill on a technicality.

Sen. René Garcia, R-Miami, who was breathing heavily after running back to his desk so he could speak against the bill, said he supported Book's effort.

But because the House didn't take up a separate portion of the bill - one that would have created a trust fund for trafficking victims - Garcia urged fellow lawmakers to vote it down. The Senate already passed a separate trust fund bill.

"I have to stand up today and ask you to vote down this amendment ... because our friends in the House did not do the right thing," Garcia said.

Book urged them to vote for it anyway, gesturing to three trafficking victims in the gallery.

"They have to drive home because they can’t stay in hotels," Book said.

It was a strange end to a bill that at one point appeared a sure thing.

Her bill would have allowed victims to sue the hotels and motels that turn a blind eye to human trafficking, and not a single lawmaker voted against it as it went through committees.

But last week, Book mysteriously postponed it, leaving trafficking victims furious and fellow lawmakers scratching their heads, wondering if Senate leadership and the powerful hotel lobby, including Disney, was working behind the scenes to kill the bill. 

On Thursday, however, it was given new life, after Book used some clever legislative maneuvering to force it to a vote on the Senate floor.

She used an amendment to sneak the bill's language onto a different bill, a tactic that violates Senate rules. But she was able to overcome the rule, creating a vote on the bill Friday night, in the waning hours of the legislative session.

But Republicans on Friday seemed determined to kill it.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, repeatedly questioned how someone could recognize the signs of trafficking.

"I don’t want people to be judged based on what they should have known," Stargel said, before throwing up her hands as she set her microphone down.

Senators Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Garcia also questioned Book about technical parts of the bill before Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, moved to disqualify the bill on a technicality.

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, then agreed with the technicality. One last-ditch effort by Book to save it also failed.

Under Book's bill, victims would have been able to sue companies that "willingly and knowingly" turn a blind eye to trafficking. That mostly meant hotels and motels, where trafficking usually takes place.

It coasted through committees, where lawmakers heard victims' horror stories of being trafficked in hotels and motels and employees doing nothing to help them. A former prosecutor told of trafficking cases she handled where employees knew victims were being trafficked, but did nothing.

During those committees, Garcia and Broxson raised questions about the bill but still voted for it.

If the victims win their lawsuits, their defendants would have to pay an additional $50,000 penalty, which would go to a trust fund for other victims. If police rescued the trafficking victim, an additional $50,000 would be imposed on the defendant, for other anti-trafficking efforts by police.

But the bill gives hotels an easy way to escape such lawsuits. If the hotel trains employees to recognize signs of trafficking, has a protocol for reporting it, and employees followed the training and protocols, the hotel has an "affirmative defense" that would quash the lawsuit.

Texas and Pennsylvania already have similar laws, but lawsuits there have been scarce.

Bill to expand Miami-Dade needle exchange program will not pass this year, sponsor says

Needle exchange

A bill that would have expanded Miami-Dade's needle exchange program to other counties will not pass this year despite a late compromise to limit its scope to just Broward and Palm Beach, its sponsor said.

HB 579/SB 800 would have allowed needle exchange programs to operate in the rest of South Florida, after the Legislature approved a five-year pilot program in Miami-Dade in 2016. The current program, run by the University of Miami, exchanges needles to cut down on the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases among drug users. It also distributes overdose reversing drugs and offers access to substance abuse counseling.

Though the legislation passed the Senate and its final House committee, Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said House leadership does not plan to take the bill up on the floor, dooming its chances for passage. "[Senate sponsor Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens] and I are upset, but committed to bringing this back next year," he said.

The bill initially called for allowing such needle exchange programs to expand statewide — operating a needle exchange outside Miami-Dade is currently not legal in Florida. But the Florida Sheriffs Association objected to the language after it reached the Senate floor, saying the bill should give law enforcement input in approving the programs.

That prompted Jones and Braynon to limit the expansion to just Broward and Palm Beach, which had officials who had already expressed interest in allowing needle exchanges to operate in their counties. But the compromise was not enough to prompt House leaders to agree to take up the bill, Jones said.

Hansel Tookes, the University of Miami medical professor who spearheads the program and was the pilot program's chief advocate, said he had already started having conversations in both counties to expand the existing program.

"This is not innovation. This is used everywhere," Tookes said. "They're saying we're not deserving of a program that's going to save lives in that part of the state."

Photo: Miami Herald

Sen. Lauren Book revives human trafficking bill in dramatic fashion

SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, watches as Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, decides that Book's human trafficking bill could be ruled out of order on Thursday, March 8, 2018. State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, in the background, made the motion to rule it out of order. It passed anyway.

Sen. Lauren Book's human trafficking bill was brought back to life on Thursday, after she used a clever bit of legislative maneuvering to bring it before the Senate for a vote.

It was a dramatic turnaround for a piece of legislation that had sailed through both chambers of the Legislature, but appeared dead last week, after Book, D-Plantation, mysteriously postponed her own bill.

The bill would allow victims to sue the hotels and motels that turn a blind eye to human trafficking.

Her decision last week left trafficking victims furious and fellow lawmakers scratching their heads, wondering if Senate leadership and the powerful hotel lobby, including Disney, was working behind the scenes to kill the bill.

But on Thursday, with two trafficking survivors looking on, Book revived it in dramatic fashion. 

She used an amendment to sneak the bill's language onto a different bill, a tactic that violates Senate rules.

And Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, was quick to point out that it went against the rules. The decision about whether Lee was right went to the Rules committee chair, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.

After a few minutes to look it over, Benacquisto came back and told her colleagues that Book's amendment did violate the rules.

But then, Lee, surprisingly, alerted Book that she had a way to veto the rules: she could call for a 2/3rds vote from her colleagues.

Lee later said in a text message that he wasn't sure if Book was aware that she could override the rule.

"I felt it was important that we follow our rules, but it's a very sensitive issue," Lee said. "I didn't want it to die without giving Sen. Book a fighting chance to pass it."

Book did ask for the 2/3rds vote, and it prevailed. Her new bill - the unrelated one with the human trafficking bill attached to it - then passed overall.

It still faces an uphill battle, however. It needs to pass the Senate again today and then pass the House.

But Book's move gave new hope to the two human trafficking survivors watching from the gallery, who had made multiple trips to Tallahassee to tell lawmakers, in public and on television, their stories.

"Two-thirds of the Senate was on our side, so it's good to know they're standing with us," said Savannah Parvu, 31.

Former Seminole County prosecutor Lisa Haba, who traveled to Tallahassee multiple times to talk about how motels and hotels turned a blind eye to human trafficking, praised Book afterward.

"She has been a tremendous advocate for survivors of human trafficking," Haba said.

Linsey Ruth, who told lawmakers this session how she was trafficked by her ex-husband, also praised the senator who has sponsored the bill in the House, Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover.

"There are a lot of really good people behind it, and we're happy to see that," Ruth said. "In our past lives, it's just been us. We've been all on our own."

March 08, 2018

Drum roll: Top lawmaker predicts governor will sign Parkland bill Friday

Gov. Rick Scott, speaks at the AP Florida Legislative Planning Session, October 14, 2015. Walter Michot

A top lawmaker said he believes that Gov. Rick Scott will sign the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act into law Friday.

Incoming Senate President Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Thursday that because of the changes the Senate made to modify the school safety proposal, Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the bill, SB 7026, after meeting with parents.

"The changes we made were significant to him," Galvano said of the amendment that removed most classroom teachers from the proposal to arm school personnel, called the "guardian" program.

Keep reading this story here