February 05, 2016

Florida superintendents, Rep. Erik Fresen spar over school construction costs

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@ByKristenMClark

Earlier this week, Florida's superintendents sought to correct what they described as inaccurate and flawed information discussed by the Florida House Appropriations Committee a couple of weeks ago, and that response has now ignited a letter feud between the superintendents and the man who controls school funding in the Florida House.

In late January, the Appropriations Committee held a lengthy discussion -- led by House education budget chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami -- about what Fresen and House leaders called a “disturbing pattern” of cost-overruns on public school construction projects paid for, at least in part, with state funding.

Because of those alleged abuses, Fresen said he's prepared to propose limits on how districts use the fixed-capital outlay dollars they get, as well as penalties, should they exceed spending caps. (More here on that meeting.)

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents responded with a two-page letter on Monday -- penned by president Barbara Jenkins, Orange County schools superintendent -- detailing why they felt Fresen's conclusions were "not sound" and didn't show the full picture of the circumstances schools face.

For one, they pointed out: "Many districts across the state have levied local referenda to meet the facilities needs of their communities because of limited capital funding from the state. These locally generated funds are meant to benefit the local community from which the funds were raised."  Download FADSS_Response

Fresen's data depicting cost over-runs didn't specifically include details on the source of funding or how much of it was state versus local dollars for the examples he cited.

Today, Fresen fired back and doubled down.

Continue reading "Florida superintendents, Rep. Erik Fresen spar over school construction costs" »

In historic move, Jorge Labarga to remain as Florida Supreme Court chief justice for second term

@ByKristenMClark

Jorge-Labarga-2015Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga continues to break historical records.

Two years ago, he became the first Hispanic person to lead the state's judicial system. On July 1, he'll begin his second term in that role -- becoming the first chief justice to succeed himself since the end of the Civil War and the first in four decades to serve more than one term.

The court announced this morning that the six other justices chose Labarga to serve for another two-year term as chief justice.

The Supreme Court has long followed a custom of rotating the chief justiceship to the next most senior member who has not yet held the post.

But in this case, Justice James E.C. Perry normally would have received the rotation in 2016, and he will be forced to retire due to age only a few months later. He chose not to stand for election, the court said.

As chief justice, Labarga leads the state's top bench and also serves as the administrative head of the state's judiciary.

“It is a privilege to serve the people of Florida,” Labarga said in a statement. “My second term will continue the work started during the first -– especially the efforts of the Access to Civil Justice Commission and implementation of both our new long-range plan and the first comprehensive statewide communications plan developed for the state courts system.”

Labarga, 63, was the second Cuban-American appointed to Florida’s high court. He came to Florida at 11 years old after the Cuban revolution. He graduated high school in West Palm Beach and then went to the University of Florida, where he earned his undergraduate and law degrees. Before becoming a Supreme Court justice seven years ago, he was a trial judge in Palm Beach County.

The court said the last chief justice to succeed himself was Charles H. Dupont, who was elected in 1860, served during the Civil War and then succeed himself in 1865.

Labarga also will become the first person to serve more than a single term as chief justice since the late Justice B.K. Roberts. He held the post for three non-consecutive terms, the last of which was in the early 1970s, the court said.

February 04, 2016

Florida House member from Aventura 'mortified' by 'mistake' on campus-carry vote

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@ByKristenMClark

CaptureRep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, says he's "mortified" and "very embarrassed" today by what he calls an honest mistake Wednesday night.

As the House was called to vote on a controversial measure to allow concealed handguns on Florida's public college and university campuses, Geller said he pressed the wrong button -- not only for himself, but for his seatmate, Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando.

That's why the two Democrats came in as "yes" votes in the 80-37 result, which passed the bill out of the chamber. (The only Democrat to intentionally vote for it was Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, who co-sponsored the bill.)

"It was absolutely a mistake. I just hit the wrong button and they locked the machine too quickly for me to fix it," Geller told the Herald/Times.

The voting board was open for nine seconds, during which time members could cast their votes.

During House floor speeches earlier in the night -- and the night before when amendments were considered -- Geller had railed against allowing guns on campuses, so his "yes" vote raised a few eyebrows.

He and Bracy changed their votes to "no" within about five minutes of the vote, which is reflected in the House record but not in the vote tally itself.

Geller said that Bracy was on the other side of the House chamber -- talking to another representative about a different bill -- when the voting happened, so Geller pushed Bracy's button for him, as they had agreed to.

The practice, though frowned upon, is allowed under House rules, so long as the member is in the chamber when another votes for him and as long as that other member does so on the member's "specific request and direction."

Geller said he normally double-checks the board, but was briefly distracted by someone who came up to speak with him.

And then it was too late.

He said he's gotten calls from constituents today about his recorded vote, and he's kicking himself for what happened.

"I own it; I own the mistake," he said. "I'm sorry for it. I regret it. I'm mortified by it."

Photo credit: Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, speaks on the House floor during the 2015 session. (Florida House) // The Florida Channel

Ban red-light cameras? Florida Senate panel advances proposal

@ByKristenMClark

Above objections from local police chiefs and city and county officials, Florida lawmakers are advancing legislation to outlaw red-light cameras statewide.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, argues the devices -- which capture infractions and later result in sometimes costly tickets for motorists -- have "essentially no safety benefit" and he said they serve to do little more than line local governments' pockets with extra revenue.

"It’s a backdoor tax increase on citizens who often can't afford to pay it, and you’re making intersections less safe," Brandes said.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, agreed: "I don’t like the cash-register they’ve become either."

Brandes' bill (SB 168) to ban red-light cameras and prohibit local governments from using them got its first approval by a Senate committee Thursday morning, with Democrats opposed.

In the House, the effort is a little more bipartisan, with Reps. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, and Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, pushing HB 4027 together. They have a press conference scheduled for this afternoon to discuss their proposal. It received its first favorable vote two weeks ago, also with some Democratic opposition.

The state legalized red-light cameras in 2010.

But a growing number of municipalities -- including North Miami Beach and, recently, Gulfport near Tampa -- have voted to turn off their cameras or have stopped using the devices altogether in the face of public backlash, lawsuits and court rulings that found the devices could violate constitutional rights.

Last year, the Florida Supreme Court declined to take up an appeals court's ruling on a lawsuit challenging how the city of Hollywood used red-light tickets to enforce traffic laws in Broward County. The court said the city's outside private vendor had, "for all practical purposes," the power to decide which motorists were ticketed, when the city bears that responsibility.

Responding to Brandes' desire to outlaw the devices statewide, Democrats on the Senate Transportation Committee objected Thursday to what they called "an expansion of pre-emption" by the state and they questioned the validity of state data that Brandes presented to demonstrate proven increases in accidents because of the devices.

"It’s working in Orange County. We’ve seen people alter their behavior once they get a citation for running a red light," Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said "I personally think they work," citing his own experience getting a ticket, which he said deterred future infractions.

But he said cities should have the power to decide for themselves. That is what cities want, too.

The Florida League of Cities isn't weighing in on whether using the cameras is good or bad. The group does "support the ability of cities to use that tool" as a public-safety measure, said Scott Dudley, the league's legislative director.

In regards to Brandes calling it a hidden tax, Dudley countered: "It’s a hidden tax that can be easily avoided by not running a red light."

He said the larger traffic safety problem is cellphones and distracted driving.

"That’s really what the Legislature should be looking at," Dudley said.

Brandes ended the hearing with an emotional appeal, blasting the "cold-hearted" devices that don't have the capacity for leeway in doling out punishment, as police officers and sheriff's deputies have.

"It’s the cold, calculated nature of this I find most objectionable," Brandes said. "They don’t offer us the human side of law enforcement. They’re completely and utterly machine-driven."

His bill has two more committee stops before it could reach the Senate floor. Artiles and Jacobs' bill has one more committee to clear in the House.

The proposed law wouldn’t take effect until 2019 to allow time for municipalities’ contracts with vendors to expire, Brandes said.

 

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Legislative committees continue meeting in Tallahassee, while the state's top officials go to the fair. Here's what we're watching:

* They won't have an official cabinet meeting, but Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi will still be at the Florida State Fair in Tampa to help kick off the festivities. The governor will host a luncheon there at noon.

* At 9 a.m., the House Judiciary Committee will again take up the proposed "Pastor Protection Act," which allows clergy to turn away gay couples seeking to marry. The committee's vote was postponed last week.

* The House State Affairs Committee could vote to send to the House floor a proposal that changes the legal language of Florida's absentee voting to "vote-by-mail." That panel also meets at 9 a.m.

* The Senate Transportation Committee, also gathering at 9 a.m., will give a first hearing to a bill by Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, and Anitere Flores of Miami, which aims to outlaw the use of red-light camera devices in Florida.

* A bill dealing with cremation fees that counties charge is set for its final committee hearing in the House. The Regulatory Affairs Committee meets at 1 p.m.

February 03, 2016

16 Florida House members broke party-lines on open-carry amendment

@ByKristenMClark

Last night's debate over allowing concealed-weapons licensees to carry handguns openly went much as excepted, with questions-and-answers and votes on amendments generally falling along partylines.

But on the night's biggest vote -- an amendment to allow lawmakers to carry concealed in official meetings of the Florida Legislature (full details here) -- some Republicans and Democrats broke party lines, several from more moderate districts.

The 120-person chamber has 81 Republicans and 39 Democrats.

The 72-43 vote on the controversial amendment by Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, included support from five Democrats and opposition by 11 Republicans.

Continue reading "16 Florida House members broke party-lines on open-carry amendment" »

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. endorses Alan Grayson in U.S. Senate race

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@ByKristenMClark

The son of former U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Sen. Bobby Kennedy is backing U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, in Florida's contentious Democratic primary in the race to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate next year.

The endorsement of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. marks one of the few but most high-profile names yet to pick Grayson over U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, who's drawn considerable support among the party establishment.

Grayson, in contrast, has earned most of his favor in progressive circles.

Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and progressive radio host, touted Grayson's strength in standing up against special interests, particularly on energy and environmental issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline.

He heralded Grayson as "the lone, true environmental defender in this Senate race."

“It’s a comfort to know Democrats like Alan Grayson still exist in Washington,” Kennedy said in a statement provided by Grayson's campaign. “He’s one of those who will not compromise in what they believe and fight for. We need Alan in the Senate.”

Photo credit: AP

February 02, 2016

Former NFL, FSU players lobby for payment in Devaughn Darling's death

From the News Service of Florida:

Family members and former teammates of a Florida State University football player who died while working out nearly 15 years ago gathered Tuesday at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to approve a bill that would compensate his family.

Devaughn Darling was a freshman for the Seminoles in 2001, when he collapsed and died during a training session. His family later agreed to a $2 million settlement with the university.

But under the state's sovereign immunity laws, the family could not collect more than $200,000 without legislative approval of what is known as a "claim" bill. Such bills have been filed repeatedly to compensate the Darling family but have not passed.

Devaughn Darling's twin brother, Devard, said it is difficult for his family to have to lobby lawmakers year after year.

"Nothing can bring him back, no amount of money,'' Devard Darling said. "$1.8 million isn't worth Devaughn's life, but like everyone has said, it is just the closure that we are looking for. We have to relive this every year."

Several former NFL players and FSU teammates joined the Darling family at the Capitol. Bills (SB 16 and HB 3513) that call for paying the Darling family have yet to be heard by legislative committees this session.

"I'm going to be here to support them (family members), and I hope that those that will vote on this issue and will bring this issue to the table will just think of the family,'' said Corey Simon, a former Florida State and NFL player.

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Both the House and Senate are in session today, and they'll have plenty of old and familiar faces on hand as their special guests for the morning. Here's what we're watching:

* Current and former lawmakers will come together in each chamber, as part of a weeklong legislative reunion in Tallahassee. The House is set to honor former members during a special "reunion" session from 9:15-10 a.m., and then the Senate plans to do the same from 11 a.m. to noon, after an hour of regular floor work.
 
* The House convenes again for its regular session at 4 p.m. Daily business is set to include debate on sanctuary cities, revisions to the state's 10-20-Life law and two high-profile guns bills -- open carry and campus carry.
 
* The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee will consider a proposal to address Florida's death penalty procedures in the wake of the Hurst v. Florida U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this month. A Senate panel held a similar hearing last week. Along that same vein, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning on whether Hurst applies to the case of death-row inmate Michael Lambrix, who has been denied a stay for his execution set for Feb. 11.
 
* The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee will debate two controversial ideas: Making both the commissioner of education and the secretary of state elected positions.
 
* A contingent of current and former NFL players will join Democratic lawmakers for a press conference urging the Legislature to sign off on a settlement deal reached in the wrongful death suit of Florida State University freshman linebacker Devaughn Darling. Darling collapsed and died in 2001 while participating in a series of intense conditioning drills at FSU.

January 29, 2016

Keystone XL grassroots opponent endorses Alan Grayson

@ByKristenMClark

U.S. Rep. and U.S. Senate candidate Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, announced today that he's picked up the endorsement of Jane Kleeb, a grassroots organizer who helped kill the Keystone XL Pipeline project.

Kleeb heralded Grayson for his strength in opposing the project despite facing political pressure.

"No other candidate in this race will protect our environment and fight for clean energy jobs with the same guts as Alan Grayson," Kleeb said in a statement provided by Grayson's campaign.

The endorsement is another example of divergent support for Grayson and his primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

Earlier today, Murphy announced he's gotten the backing of the Laborers' International Union of North America, adding to his cache of party establishment support in contrast to Grayson's progressive, more grassroots base.

LIUNA, like Murphy, supported the Keystone XL project.

Murphy and Grayson are competing in the Democratic party primary in August for the race to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate.