March 08, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today

@ByKristenMClark

Following a late-night budget conference on Monday, the final proposed $80 billion state budget is getting printed and expected to arrive on lawmakers' desks sometime this morning -- starting the clock for the constitutionally required 72-hour waiting period until they can vote on it Friday. That means the Legislature is on track to finish session as scheduled this year.

Meanwhile, here's what we're watching today out of Tallahassee:

* The House is expected to vote on a bill that gives families up to $7,500 to bury the remains of children exhumed in unmarked graves at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in North Florida, west of Tallahassee.

* Other significant bills on the House's agenda today deal with civil asset forfeiture and alimony. The House session starts at 10 a.m.

* The Florida Supreme Court will start to hear appeals from several death-row inmates, who argue their death sentences are no longer valid because the law that was in effect when they were sentenced has been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

* The Senate will consider a bill (SB 766/HB 499) that would set limits on local value adjustment boards' consideration of property value petitions. This is a priority for Miami-Dade County officials, who say the current process "short-changes" the school district by delaying tax revenue the district relies on.

* Gov. Rick Scott plans to make a "major economic announcement" for 2017 at 11 a.m. at Orlando's Citrus Bowl Varsity Club.

March 06, 2016

Lawmakers agree on $75 million each in capital aid for traditional schools, charter schools

@ByKristenMClark

Florida's 650 charter schools and 3,600 traditional public schools would each get a pot of $75 million in state funds next year to spend on construction and maintenance projects, under a budget agreement the House and Senate appropriations chairmen announced Sunday afternoon.

The figure -- about the same as what Republican Gov. Rick Scott had asked for -- is $25 million more for each set of schools than lawmakers allocated this year.

It's also a compromise between Republican leaders in the House and Senate from what each chamber originally sought. In their budgets, both the House and Senate wanted to keep capital funding for traditional public schools level at $50 million. For charters, the House wanted $90 million, while the Senate budgeted nothing.

"From our perspective, it was kind of a guiding principle that we ought to be doing for the public system what we're doing for the charter school system, and we ultimately agreed on a level for funding both," Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said.

"The reality is we're up from last year," added House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

The equal funding level is a victory for charter school advocates, who lobbied to get at least as much in capital dollars as traditional schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. Unlike district-run schools, charter schools often lease their facilities, rather than build them.

In a statement this evening, the Florida Charter School Alliance, which represents more than 200,000 students, "thanks the Legislature for the increase of $25 million in dollars to fund the cost of school facilities."

Supporters of conventional public schools are likely to be somewhat disappointed, although they're set to get more money this year than last. They had urged lawmakers to make up for years of reduced funding, when state capital money to charter schools far outweighed what conventional schools received.

Continue reading "Lawmakers agree on $75 million each in capital aid for traditional schools, charter schools" »

February 29, 2016

'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses might be continued through budget language

@ByKristenMClark

As legislation to make permanent the "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program remains in limbo this session, Florida House and Senate leaders are floating the possibility of a one-year extension by including the program -- once again -- in proviso language for the annual budget.

The controversial program predictably surfaced as a point of leverage between House and Senate education leaders this weekend as they started hashing out the 2016-17 budget.

The bonuses are a priority for House Republicans, but senators in both parties are especially reluctant to buy in to the idea.

By Sunday evening, lead education budget negotiators Rep. Erik Fresen and Sen. Don Gaetz had agreed on the largest budget issue: how to fund increases to K-12 schools and by how much.

But the rest of the education budget remains unresolved.

The House rejected the first and only offer from the Senate, which included -- among a host of issues -- a proposed compromise on funding for the "Best and Brightest" program. The bonuses award "highly effective" teachers who scored in the top 20 percent on their high school SAT/ACT exams.

The offer from Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, was a broad this-for-that exchange of several priority areas, which was presented as "all or nothing" to the House.

Under Gaetz's offer, the Senate would have supported the House's desire to include the teacher bonus plan in the budget implementing bill -- allowing it to continue for a second year. The Senate would have also supported $22.5 million in funding, half the amount the House wants.

Continue reading "'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses might be continued through budget language" »

February 27, 2016

House, Senate close to deal on K-12 funding that avoids hike on local tax dollars

Gaetz and fresen

@ByKristenMClark

Legislative leaders were close to hashing out a deal Saturday evening to provide record-level K-12 education funding next school year -- without forcing businesses and homeowners to shoulder hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funding through local property taxes.

The proposal is a gesture of significant compromise by the Florida House.

But by using a greater share of state dollars instead, the $458 million proposed increase for 2016-17 is far less than what Republican Gov. Rick Scott or House or Senate leaders had originally sought.

Scott's recommendation to the Legislature was for a $507 million increase, almost 90 percent of which would have come from property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay.

By comparison, the House had originally proposed a $601 million increase, while the Senate wanted $650 million extra.

Both initial legislative budget plans mirrored Scott's funding formula, but Senate leaders have, for weeks, argued that increasing K-12 funding through the "required local effort" -- as Scott proposed -- would constitute a "tax increase."

Scott and some House members disagreed with that assertion, arguing that the tax rate wouldn't have changed. Even so, property tax bills would've gone up because property values have rebounded statewide.

On Saturday, House members -- led by education budget conference committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen -- shifted their tone.

"There was obviously a lot of concern by members of both parties as to how those funds were distributed," the Miami Republican said.

After re-analyzing their budget allocations, Fresen said he and committee Vice-Chairman Sen. Don Gaetz "made the policy decision overall to apply more general revenue ... (and) apply less of what could be considered -- whether construed properly or not -- as a property tax increase."

Continue reading "House, Senate close to deal on K-12 funding that avoids hike on local tax dollars" »

February 25, 2016

Florida House, Senate 'optimistic' budget conferences could start this weekend

@ByKristenMClark

Florida House and Senate leaders are either more in sync than Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee let on just four hours ago, or he and House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran had some very productive discussions in a short period of time.

In a joint email to the state's 160 lawmakers at around 9:15 this evening, Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said they are "pleased with the progress" made by Lee, R-Brandon, and Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

"(We) are optimistic we will be ready to begin the budget conference this weekend," Gardiner and Crisafulli wrote. "We will update you as early as possible tomorrow, so you can make the appropriate travel arrangements."

At the close of yesterday's session, Gardiner had advised Senate appropriations members to stick around, in case budget meetings started this weekend.

But after a seven-hour Senate Appropriations Committee meeting today, Lee indicated not much progress had been made in the past 24 hours. He told reporters earlier this evening that he "hadn't really talked" to Corcoran all day, but that they'd planned to speak this evening.

House and Senate leaders have yet to release budget allocations, the next big step in the process. They need to shore up a budget no later than March 8, in order for lawmakers to vote on one before session is scheduled to end March 11.

February 10, 2016

House budget panel endorses limits on school construction spending

@ByKristenMClark

With resounding opposition from Democrats and school officials, Republican lawmakers in the Florida House are fast-tracking a proposal to significantly change how public school districts use taxpayer money to fund construction projects, while making it easier for charter schools to get capital dollars.

Education budget committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is spearheading the measure primarily to rein in the state’s 67 county school districts, which he argues have “glaringly and grossly” overspent on construction projects over the past 10 years.

“I don’t think school districts, as a norm, waste money on construction projects, but the numbers bear out … in certain instances, there have been unwise business decisions made on certain projects,” Fresen said.

His substitute version of a bill that deals with facilities dollars (HB 873) would limit districts’ spending on capital costs — even if the district is using local revenue, such as a sales tax approved by county voters. Districts would be punished for going over the state-imposed cap; they’d forfeit the next three years of capital-outlay dollars from the state if they exceed it.

It would also force districts to allocate some of their local property tax to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed and don’t typically enjoy such local aid. Furthermore, charter schools would be eligible for state dollars sooner under revised eligibility criteria.

The Republican-heavy Appropriations Committee approved the revised version of HB 873 mostly along party lines on Tuesday, with Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, joining Republicans in support. Other Democrats and school officials urged Republicans to take a more comprehensive look at capital funding to both charter and traditional public schools.

“We really need to tap the brakes on this, and I don’t know why it’s moving so quickly,” said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach.“I think we need to take the time to understand the issues and get it right.”

More here.

February 03, 2016

Senator: Teacher bonus program needs to be vetted before funding assured

@ByKristenMClark

The chairman of the Florida Senate's education budget committee said Wednesday there's a very good reason the chamber didn't include funding toward continuing the new "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program in its proposed budget for 2016-17: The program hasn't been vetted by the chamber yet.

A bill to continue the program, currently in its inaugural year, is moving slowly through the Senate, but it's far from guaranteed to pass

"It’s my sense we need to fully vet the policy; we didn’t have a chance to do that last year," Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, told the chamber's Appropriations Committee.

The House debated the program last spring, and first-year funding of $44 million was ultimately added to the final state budget during the special session over the summer.

The controversial program offers bonuses to teachers who are rated “highly effective” and score in the top 20th percentile on their SAT or ACT exams when they took them in high school. First-year teachers are eligible simply based on their exam scores.

It is a priority item for the Florida House and the brainchild of House education budget chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami. Legislation to renew it is ready for a full House vote.

Fresen describes it as both a recruitment and a retention tool, but critics say there's no evidence of a correlation between teachers' old high school test scores and student performance. The state's largest teachers' union also argues it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.

Acknowledging the "confusion" and "frustration" teachers have expressed, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, on Wednesday asked Gaetz for an update on the Senate's proposed funding for the program -- which was notably absent from its initial budget plan released last week.

"We can have full a debate on 'Best & Brightest' and any changes that might be necessary to the program, prior to making any kind of commitment on behalf of the Senate for funding," Gaetz said.

The House budget includes $45 million for the teacher bonuses, $1 million more than this year. Republican Gov. Rick Scott's budget plan recommended $39 million toward it.

Two bills could be vehicles for the "Best & Brightest" program in the Senate: a standalone bill by Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, or another by Gaetz, which deals with performance funding and is ready for consideration by the full Appropriations Committee, should the panel take it up.

Flores on Wednesday joined other Republican and Democratic senators who have previously expressed hesitation about the bonus program's eligibility requirements.

She questioned rewarding teachers based on the their own SAT scores, "something that's outdated, and seen as an input rather than an output, as it relates to student success." She said she would prefer to base bonuses on whether teachers have national board certifications -- which the Legislature used to do.

"I think that would be a better route for us to take," Flores said.

Gaetz said the Legislature stopped funding that program during the economic downturn several years ago, in part, as a cost-cutting measure because there was no evidence proving "a cause-and-effect relationship" between teachers' certifications and student performance -- a complaint of the "Best & Brightest" program today.

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Scott_cornhole

@ByKristenMClark

The governor plays cornhole at the Florida Capitol, lawmakers huddle for initial budget talks and controversial gun bills get a floor vote in the House. Here's what we're watching today:

* Proposed plans for the 2016-17 budget will go before the House's and Senate's full appropriations committees. Both chambers have scheduled daylong meetings to debate and revise their respective proposals, which were released Friday. (House Appropriations, 8 a.m., 212 Knott Building. Senate Appropriations, 9 a.m. 412 Knott Buiding)

* Gov. Rick Scott is elevating his efforts to persuade the Legislature to support his call for a $1 billion tax cut and $250 million in business incentives. In a rare move, he's hosting a rally at the Florida Capitol, starting at 11 a.m. It will feature "leaders from around the state" and a specialty cornhole set branded with Scott's slogan of "1st For Jobs."

* The House Finance and Tax Committee, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, plans to formally unveil its "bipartisan" tax cut package -- and "much anticipated" hashtag -- during a press conference after the committee's meeting, set for 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

* More than 100 employees of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa plan to visit with House and Senate members to help draw support for a $3 billion gaming compact, which the Seminole tribe and the governor signed but which the Legislature is hesitant to back.

* The House convenes for session at 3. After heated debate yesterday evening, the chamber is expected to pass two controversial gun bills and consider a slew of other legislation on the table.

Photo credit: Gov. Rick Scott's office

January 29, 2016

Budget plans reveal Florida House, Senate far apart in school construction dollars

Doralcharter02wmm (1)

@ByKristenMClark

The state House is proposing to give Florida's 650 charter schools almost twice as much of the state's sought-after school construction dollars than traditional public schools next year.

But over in the Senate, members wants to give them zilch, while traditional public schools would still get $50 million.

At least on paper.

The figures come from each chamber's proposed budget bills, released today. But House and Senate education budget committee chairmen caution not to read too much into the proposed line-items.

It's still relatively early in the legislative budget process, and both Senate Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said this week that they hadn't finalized figures for fixed capital outlay dollars yet nor determined how much exactly should go to either traditional public schools or charter schools.

Fresen said in a text message today that the specifics will be hashed out later when House and Senate leaders eventually meet in conference committee to settle on the final state budget.

"Those are block numbers," he said, referring to the fixed capital outlay line-items. "It doesn't really mean much right now."

But the proposed figures offer insight into each chamber's priorities and potential bargaining chips going forward.

Continue reading "Budget plans reveal Florida House, Senate far apart in school construction dollars" »

Florida House wants $601M increase to K-12 education funding

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House is also seeking a big boost in K-12 education funding next year, proposing an extra $601 million more for schools.

Both the House and Senate are seeking to increase K-12 education funding even more so than what Republican Gov. Rick Scott has proposed.

Scott called for $500 million in extra funding. The House would increase that by another $100 million, while the Senate has pitched an extra $650 million, or $150 million more than Scott's plan.

But the the point of contention continues to be how much of those new dollars will come from the state versus growing revenues from local property taxes.

Some Republicans in both chambers argue increasing the required local effort constitutes a "tax increase," and they're not on board with that -- especially in the Senate.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee for education, said his panel would consider several alternatives early next week, including replacing local property taxes with state tax revenue. More here.

Some lawmakers would prefer scaling back the local dollars and counting that toward the $1 billion in tax cuts that Scott wants, or even just simply acknowledging that the increase in education spending would cut into the overall tax cuts.

"If we cut taxes here a billion dollars and raise them $500 million at home, we need to call it a $500 million tax decrease, not $1 billion," said Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, a member of the House education budget committee.

That chamber's plan uses Scott's method of predominantly relying on local property tax revenue -- which House Education Budget Committee Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, describes as an "adjustment with no actual increase in the millage."

But even if the tax rate doesn't change, property owners' tax bills will likely still be higher because of improved property values statewide.

Fresen said the proportion of local taxes toward education declined from 2009 to 2013, "so during a time of declining tax rolls, it was essentially a tax cut," so he said this adjusts for that now that property values are rebounding.

Fresen rolled out the House proposal during a swift discussion on Thursday. The chamber unveiled its full budget plan this morning.

For K-12 education, the House recommends a total budget of $20.3 billion, with $7,232 in per-pupil funding. The current level is about $7,107 per student this year.

To fund the House's plan of an extra $601 million in K-12 education, about 78 percent of that -- or $505 million -- would come from required and discretionary local dollars. About $95 million would come from the state.

By comparison, Scott's budget proposal called for a $20.2 billion education budget with funding of $7,221 per student. He wants to increase K-12 dollars by $507.3 million in 2016-17. But only about $80 million of that would be extra state aide, while $427.3 million — 85 percent — would come from property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay

Meanwhile, the Senate's budget plan is about $50 million more than the House's and $150 million more than the governor's. It's roughly $20.3 billion, with $7,249 in per-pupil funding.

To fund its $650 million increase -- for now -- the Senate has penciled in similar proportions of local and state funding as the House and governor, but Gaetz expects that to change given his and his colleagues' discontent with that calculation.