January 28, 2016

After lengthy, lively debate, open-carry proposal heads to full Florida House



Despite discord among the state’s law enforcement officers and passionate efforts to derail it, a National Rifle Association-backed measure to allow nearly 1.5 million people to openly carry guns in Florida is ready for consideration by the full state House.

A compromise version of HB 163 -- by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- easily passed the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The 12-4 vote came after 2-1/2 hours of debate that included mentions of terrorism, God and the Wild West, and four unsuccessful amendments aimed at scaling back the drastic shift in public policy.

Tallahassee Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda was the only Democrat to side with Republicans in supporting the measure.

If it becomes law, concealed-weapons permit-holders could carry handguns openly wherever they're allowed to carry concealed. Private businesses -- ranging from grocery stores and bars to Disney World -- would be able to decide whether people can carry guns, but no public place -- such as a public hospital -- could ban them, unless guns are banned already under state law.

The Senate version -- SB 300, sponsored by Gaetz's father, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville -- awaits consideration before that chamber's Judiciary Committee, its second of three committee stops. Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has said he'll give it a hearing.

Matt Gaetz's measure is likely to earn favor in the full House, where 81 of the 120 members are Republicans, but Democrats said they plan to continue fighting.

Republicans and gun-rights supporters heralded the proposal on Thursday as one that fortifies constitutional rights, or what Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, called a "God-given right to openly carry weapons."

But Democrats and gun-control advocates blast the measure because they fear it would jeopardize law enforcement officers' safety as well as public safety. They say it could harm Florida's "family friendly" tourism industry, and some also worry about the ready ability terrorists could have to openly carry handguns.

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Open-carry bill up for final hearing in Florida House this morning


A controversial proposal -- backed by the National Rifle Association and gun-rights advocates -- that would allow more than 1.4 million people in Florida to openly carry guns goes before its third and final House committee this morning.

Expect lively debate by the House Judiciary Committee over the proposal from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. At least two divergent amendments have been proposed; others might have been filed since last night, but are not publicly available yet.

Gaetz is offering a compromise to his bill, in line with what the Florida Police Chiefs Association has requested. His amendment would allow openly carried guns to be loaded or unloaded, but they'd have to be holstered.

Also, the language removes restrictions on judges and law enforcement that his original bill included, which would have limited how police investigated people openly carrying and how judges decided cases. Gone is the "strict scrutiny" mandate on judges and inserted is a clarification that the proposed law "is not intended to restrict a law enforcement officer’s ability or authority to conduct investigations."

However, police officers would remain vulnerable to lawsuits if someone accuses the officer of violating their right to bear arms, a penalty that Gaetz's bill still includes.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, has filed an amendment that would gut the bill and replace it with provisions sought by the Florida Sheriffs Association. General open carry wouldn't be allowed. The changes aim to target only what the NRA has said is its primary concern: the prosecution of people who accidentally display concealed weapons.

But NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said this morning that solution is off the table. She said lawmakers aimed to resolve that issue in 2011 but it didn't work. She said NRA attorneys believe the only fix is to allow open carry in general.

She added: "We're ready to fight."

The proposed law would still only apply to people who have concealed weapons permits in Florida.

The committee hearing starts at 9. Stay tuned to see what happens.

January 27, 2016

With HIV cases climbing, Florida Democrats push for responsible sex education in public schools


With Florida leading the nation in new HIV infections, Democratic lawmakers say now more than ever the Legislature should do away with what's commonly referred to as "abstinence-only" sex education in the state's 4,300 public schools.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, and Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, are the leading sponsors of what they've dubbed the "Florida Healthy Adolescence Act" (SB 1056/HB 859).

The bill makes comprehensive sex education an option for districts -- which "doesn't force anything on school districts, on schools, on parents," Fullwood said. Those districts that do choose to offer it would have to provide medically accurate, factual and age-appropriate information to students.

Information covered by the umbrella of "human sexuality" education would include: family planning, pregnancy and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV and AIDS.

Bullard, a teacher for the past 16 years, said "students are going to do what students do," and adults need to give them the tools to make smart decisions, rather than promoting what he described as an outdated and naive policy.

"Let's just be honest with ourselves," he said. "We can no longer assume by saying the word 'abstinence' that people will automatically abstain. It doesn't happen in real life; it doesn't happen with adults. Why would we even assume it happens with teenagers?"

"A teen that understands the ramifications and the totality of what they're doing is going to be a better prepared adult," he said.

Both Bullard's and Fullwood's bills have been referred to the Senate and House education policy committees. But neither are expected to get a hearing in the Republican-led Legislature this session.

During their press conference Wednesday at the Capitol, Bullard and Fullwood referenced increasing HIV cases in Florida -- data which was detailed in a Herald/Times analysis this week.

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January 26, 2016

Florida Senate panel proposes $650M increase to K-12 education funding in 2016-17


The education budget committee of the Florida Senate wants to raise funding for K-12 public schools by $650 million next year, about $150 million more than what Republican Gov. Rick Scott proposed.

The Senate Education Appropriations Committee rolled out its 2016-17 budget proposal on Tuesday, with plans to discuss it further on Thursday and send it to the full Appropriations Committee by week's end. The House budget committee plans to unveil its budget plan on Thursday.

Substantial changes in the Senate education budget committee's recommendation are unlikely, chairman Sen. Don Gaetz cautioned before he made his presentation.

"The concrete has been poured and it's hardening," said Gaetz, R-Niceville.

A big unknown, however, is how the $650 million increase would be funded, Gaetz said.

Continue reading "Florida Senate panel proposes $650M increase to K-12 education funding in 2016-17" »

January 25, 2016

Rick Scott nominates former DEO head to judicial nominating commission


Less than a month after leaving the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, former agency director Jesse Panuccio has been nominated by Republican Gov. Rick Scott to fill a seat on the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

Panuccio will succeed Rutledge Liles for a term that ends in July 2019, according to a news release by Scott's office this afternoon announcing 42 other appointments to judicial nominating commissions for courts across the state.

Tallahassee lobbyist Jason Unger, 47, of GrayRobinson, P.A. was also reappointed to the Supreme Court commission.

The commissions nominate judges for trial and appellate courts, as well as the Supreme Court justices, and present them to the governor for his selection.

Scott has made a point of putting close associates on these commissions. The next commission will have the ability to name the candidates for replacement James E.C. Perry, who must retire in 2017 because of a mandatory retirement rule.

Panuccio, 35, announced his resignation from the DEO in early December. Panuccio led the agency through controversy over technical problems with the online filing system for unemployment benefits and had been one of Scott's top advisers in jobs and economic development. He was appointed executive director in 2013 but faced a tough confirmation vote in the Senate. He left the job Jan. 8.

January 15, 2016

After Citrus Bowl incident, Florida senator might propose law about prayer at high school sports games



State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, says he might wade into the controversial issue of prayer at high school athletic events during this legislative session.

Brandes' interest in the topic stems from an incident in December when the Florida High School Athletic Association wouldn't allow two Christian schools -- Tampa's Cambridge Christian School and Jacksonville's University Christian School -- to broadcast a prayer over the public-announcement system before kickoff of the District 2-A Championship football game.

"We use the PA system here all of the time to pray in the Legislature," Brandes told the Herald/Times. "I’ve been at many events, political events or other events where people have offered a prayer or blessing or some other type of inspirational statement."

"I think if you have two Christian schools that are consenting, that using the PA system is not a major issue and that the state should stay out of it," he added.

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January 14, 2016

Florida teachers: 'Enough is enough' with state education system



More than 2,000 educators across Florida rallied at the state Capitol on Thursday to protest high-stakes testing, for-profit charter schools and other statewide education policies they feel are harming students and de-valuing classroom teachers.

With repeated chants of "enough is enough," the crowd filled much of the plaza between the old and new Florida capitols to let lawmakers in the rooms above know of their discontent.

"The biggest thing I want: I want politicians out of the classroom," said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association -- the state's largest teachers union, which organized the rally. "We want them to listen -- really listen -- to what we have to say."

McCall lambasted the Republican-led Legislature for "the practice of blaming and shaming teachers" and called for an overhaul of the state's education accountability system, where students' performance on the new Florida Standards Assessments is used to decide school grades and evaluate teachers.


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January 13, 2016

In light of SCOTUS ruling, Florida inmate set to die next wants answers


Within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court handing down a ruling invalidating Florida's process for sentencing criminals to death, the next death-row inmate scheduled to be executed filed a petition seeking to test the ramifications of the ruling.

The execution of convicted double-murderer Michael Lambrix is set for Feb. 11. An order issued by the Supreme Court Tuesday (and announced today) orders attorneys for the state to answer how Hurst v. Florida -- the case which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on this week -- applies to Lambrix's case.

The court’s 8-1 opinion in Hurst states that a jury must impose a death sentence. Under current law, judges make that decision based on the jury’s recommendation, a procedure unique to Florida. Both Lambrix and Mark James Asay, who is scheduled to be executed in March, were sentenced to death under the now-unconstitutional rules system, as were an unknown number among Florida's 390 death-row inmates.

The Florida Supreme Court ordered the state to respond by Jan. 20 with answers to: "the retroactivity of Hurst, the effect of Hurst in light of the aggravating factors found by the trial court in Lambrix’s case, and whether any error in Lambrix’s case is harmless."

Florida's Supreme Court justices haven't addressed the Hurst ruling and don't plan to, except in open court where appropriate for the cases before them, a court spokesman said. Ethics rules prohibit the justices from commenting on pending matters.

December 30, 2015

Corrine Brown files new challenge to congressional district changes

From the News Service of Florida:

Arguing that an east-west configuration for her district "combines far-flung communities worlds apart culturally and geographically," lawyers for U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown asked a federal judge Tuesday to void Florida's latest congressional redistricting plan.

The complaint marks the next phase of a legal battle over the state's political boundaries that has raged for nearly four years. The first two drafts of a congressional plan --- approved by the Legislature in 2012 and tweaked in 2014 --- were thrown out by state courts for violating a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.

But the reorientation of Brown's congressional district, which has long ambled from Jacksonville to Orlando but now would run from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west, prompted the Democratic congresswoman to file suit this year against the change. After the Florida Supreme Court officially approved the new district early this month, Brown was allowed to update her case Tuesday.

The challenge goes to great lengths to portray the areas encompassed by the Jacksonville-to-Orlando version of the district as a distinct region that includes African-American voters with similar interests and problems. It traces a history that includes the Ku Klux Klan, baseball player Jackie Robinson's spring training and the book "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Dozens of voters from the area joined Brown's lawsuit.

"Black voters have reaped substantial benefits by being in a district in which they can elect a candidate of their choice, including having a representative who understands the needs of the community she represents, brings infrastructure money to the district, helps black residents obtain government contracts, brings job fairs to the district, and is very accessible to her constituents," the complaint says.

Brown's Jacksonville-to-Orlando seat has long been at the center of conflicts in Florida over gerrymandered districts. Critics see it as an attempt to aid Republican campaigns, especially those in Central Florida, by concentrating African-American Democratic voters in a single district. But supporters say it ensures those voters the chance to elect a candidate of their choice.

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December 29, 2015

Education board vice-chairman proposes alternative school grades formulas


State Board of Education Vice-Chairman John Padget says a new formula proposed by Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to calculate school grades doesn't meet the "high standard" lawmakers asked for, so he's proposing three alternatives of his own.

The board is scheduled to decide a new school grading formula, as well as cut scores for the new Florida Standards Assessments, during its meeting Jan. 6.

How school grades are calculated is important, in part, because the Department of Education uses those grades to dole out school recognition dollars. In 2014, $124.1 million went to high-performing schools across Florida.

Under Stewart's proposed rule, released earlier this month, schools would need to earn only 62 percent of possible points in order to receive an "A" grade. Schools would get a "C" if they received between 41 and 53 percent. A simulation the Department of Education produced showed that the distribution of school grades under her new formula would be largely unchanged from 2014 to 2015.

In a letter to Stewart and the rest of the state board on Monday, Padget said "it is disingenuous to expect the same results" when the Florida Standards Assessments -- student performance for which is one of the factors in determining school grades -- are supposed to be more rigorous.

Padget also criticized Stewart's proposed formula as "not user-friendly" because the difference in percentage points between grades varies and the bar isn't set high enough for schools to receive good grades.

"The bar to be a top-rated 'A' school should be challenging, meaningful and higher than the 62 percent in the proposed rule," he wrote. He also took issue that schools with a score of less than 50 percent could get a "C," which state law defines as "making satisfactory progress."

"A simple, transparent, and logical A-F scale is a precondition to ensuring that our Board of Education delivers the result that the Legislature intended," Padget wrote.

He provided his fellow board members with three alternative formulas to consider in advance of the January meeting. The one he said he personally favors -- "Option 1" -- would set the benchmark for an "A" grade at 70 or above, with 10 percentage points separating A's from B's, B's from C's, etc., and all "C" schools would score 50 percent or higher.

Padget is also resisting Stewart's recommended cut scores, because he says they aren't tough enough. On that issue, some board members appear ready to side with Stewart.

Here's Padget's letter to the board:  Download JRPletter28Dec15

And here are the options he's presenting in more detail:  Download GradingScaleOptions123