November 10, 2016

Anitere Flores named to Florida Senate leadership post

Ap_flores2@ByKristenMClark

Newly re-elected Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores has been named the Florida Senate's President Pro Tempore for the 2017 session.

Incoming Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, announced Flores' appointment as his No. 2 on Thursday, heralding Flores as a "loyal friend and trusted ally."

"The role of Senate President Pro Tempore is a significant position of trust and authority," Negron said in a statement, adding that Flores has "longstanding relationships with many new and returning senators. She has a proven ability to work in a bipartisan manner without compromising her own unwavering principles. I have complete confidence in her ability to represent the Senate in this important leadership position."

Flores was re-elected to the Senate on Tuesday with 54 percent of the vote after a competitive battle with Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell for the newly redrawn District 39. The district includes portions of Miami-Dade County and all of Monroe County. Flores has been in the Florida Senate since 2010.

Flores' appointment will become effective Nov. 22, when the Senate convenes in Organization Session. The President Pro Tempore is formally nominated and elected by the full Senate during the Organization Session.

Flores joins a growing list of Miami lawmakers who will hold influential positions in Tallahassee next session. On Wednesday, several Miami-Dade County representatives were also named to the leadership team in the Florida House under incoming Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

Photo credit: AP

June 24, 2016

April 18, 2016

Joe Negron begins statewide university tour with contrasting visits at FSU, FAMU

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@ByKristenMClark

The disparities between Tallahassee's two public state universities were on sharp display on Monday, during the first day of Joe Negron's whirlwind four-day tour of the State University System.

Negron, the incoming Florida Senate president, wants to assess the needs of each of Florida's 12 public universities and look for ways to boost higher education funding, resources and facilities -- a top priority for the Stuart Republican who is due to take over the Legislature's upper chamber in November.

As history has shown and as Negron's tour highlighted, the needs of both Florida State University and Florida A&M University are vastly different.

At FSU, Negron and the four other senators who joined him in Tallahassee heard from several star students: Dual majors, Bright Futures scholars, doctoral standouts. None of whom said they or their classmates worried about paying for college or feared having to drop out because they couldn't afford it.

FSU President John Thrasher and university administrators ended the visit, set in a polished, modern-style conference room, by laying out a request for $113 million in capital aid that they want from the state to finish off three signature projects.

Barely a mile away at FAMU -- one of the state's historically black colleges and universities -- senators were taken on a 45-minute walking tour that included an example of a decades-old classroom they want to upgrade that sits just down the hall from a new computer lab, of which administrators say they are in dire need of more.

President Elmira Magnum emphasized that many of her university's students come from households that earn $40,000 or less. Her request for lawmakers: Expand need-based funding and open grant and scholarship programs to include summer enrollment, which can help students graduate faster while saving money. She also asked for more funding for faculty salaries and to modernize dorms and other aging facilities.

The FAMU students who spoke to the senators -- a mix of both scholars and more average students -- were in full agreement: The main reason their peers don't finish at FAMU is because they can't afford it. Several said they have to work, sometimes full-time, in order to pay for school or to help their families at home.

Environmental services sophomore Demarcus Robinson said he might have to go back his home in Atlanta to complete school, because he has an outstanding balance for this semester and doesn't know how he'd pay for next year.

The contrast between the two universities resonated with the senators.

Continue reading "Joe Negron begins statewide university tour with contrasting visits at FSU, FAMU" »

April 14, 2016

Gov. Rick Scott must act on 21 bills today, including 'school choice' measure

@ByKristenMClark

Republican Gov. Rick Scott faces a deadline today on 21 bills that the Legislature passed during the 2016 session. Among them: A far-reaching education bill that includes several new policies intended to advance "school choice" in Florida public education.

HB 7029 was the product of more than a dozen different bills that lawmakers negotiated up through the final hours of session on March 11.

Most notably, it creates a framework for allowing open enrollment in public schools statewide -- giving students the ability to attend any school in the state so long as there is space available. If Scott signs the bill, that part of the new law would take effect in 2017-18; the remaining provisions would take effect this summer.

The bill would also let high school athletes have immediate eligibility when transferring schools, subject charter schools to more accountability and a new formula for receiving capital dollars, and codify performance funding formulas for Florida's 12 public universities and 28 state colleges -- among various other new policy changes. (Here's a full rundown of the bill's provisions.)

Also poised for Scott's action today are the session's major transportation package and proposed new laws affecting health care policy and Citizens Insurance.

With any bill, Scott has the option to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

He has vetoed only one bill so far this year: one that called for a referendum to create a utility board in Gainesville.

After today, Scott will have just three bills left to act on of the 272 that lawmakers passed during the 2016 session. Two require his action by Saturday and the final one -- a controversial bill reforming alimony and child custody arrangements -- is due for action by Tuesday.

April 08, 2016

Like this year, 2018 legislative session will start in January

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@ByKristenMClark

Florida's legislative session will get an early start in 2018, just like this year.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill today that moves the 2018 session's start to Jan. 9.

The Florida Constitution allows the Legislature to start session early in even-numbered years. Otherwise, session begins on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March. (The 2017 session will start March 7.)

Lawmakers were divided in moving the session date up for 2018. SB 7076 passed the Senate by a 27-11 vote and the House by a 89-28 vote.

During Senate debate, some senators questioned the cost and need for having an earlier session. Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, responded at the time: "When you’re on spring break with your kids this year, you’ll understand the significance of it."

Scott also signed 16 other bills into law today, including one that helps the families of law enforcement and first responders who are killed on the job.

SB 7012 -- sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, and Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers -- provides the deceased individual's monthly salary to their beneficiaries for their lifetime.

The expanded benefit applies to law enforcement officers, firefighters, corrections officers, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and probation officers. The benefit takes effect July 1 and retroactively applies to eligible individuals who were killed in the line of duty on or after July 1, 2013.

"This legislation will ensure that these brave Floridians have the peace of mind knowing that their family will have financial support if the unthinkable were to ever happen," Scott said in a statement today.

Here were all of the new laws Scott approved today. He still has 26 bills pending on his desk from the 2016 session.

Continue reading "Like this year, 2018 legislative session will start in January" »

March 24, 2016

Gov. Rick Scott signs 34 bills, including body cameras, slungshots & dental carve-out

@ByKristenMClark and @MichaelAuslen

Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed 34 bills into law today, including one requiring law enforcement agencies to adopt policies and training protocols for using officer-worn body cameras and another that makes it legal again for Floridians to carry concealed slungshots.

Scott also signed legislation carving out dental services from Medicaid managed care plans. It's a change supporters say will lower costs and better mirror the private insurance market, where medical coverage and dental coverage are generally provided by different insurers.

Currently, Medicaid recipients' dental coverage is from the same provider as their medical.

The bill requires a study by the Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability to assess the idea before it goes into effect, allowing lawmakers to come back to the table and change course if need be. In his letter approving the legislation, Scott issued a stern warning to lawmakers:

"While I am giving my approval to this bill today," he wrote, "if the results of the study do not demonstrate better quality dental care at reduced costs than the net benefits provided under Statewide Medicaid Managed Care today, I expect the 2017 Legislature to amend the statute immediately to protect Medicaid recipients and the services they receive through Statewide Medicaid Managed Care."

Meanwhile, the body-camera legislation (HB 93) sailed through the Legislature this session, garnering unanimous approval from both chambers. The new law doesn't require agencies to use body cameras but will ensure that those that do have proper procedures in place.

As of October, 18 police agencies in Florida — including Miami and Miami Beach — used body cameras. Another 10, such as Tampa police, were operating pilot programs.

“This bill gives us that opportunity to go further to make sure that we are providing transparency to our citizens but also give accountability to our law enforcement,” Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said after the legislation passed the House earlier this month.

The bill dealing with slungshots (HB 4009) lifts a ban on the manufacturing or sales of the weapon and allows individuals to carry it concealed without a permit. A slungshot -- which is a weight attached to a cord or strap -- was originally a maritime tool that later became a weapon used by gangs in the 19th century.

Other bills Scott signed today deal with various criminal justice issues, agriculture, education and public records exemptions, among other topics.

Here is the full list of new laws:

Continue reading "Gov. Rick Scott signs 34 bills, including body cameras, slungshots & dental carve-out" »

March 03, 2016

Florida Senate supports starting 2018 legislative session in January

@ByKristenMClark

Florida senators voted Thursday to start the 2018 legislative session two months early -- in January, as they did this year.

Senators did not debate the measure prior to approving it by a 27-11 vote.

But they had a short discussion Wednesday when Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, questioned the cost of and need for having an earlier session.

"When you’re on spring break with your kids this year, you’ll understand the significance of it," Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said, cracking a smile.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, also noted another benefit of an earlier session. He jokingly inquired about the "average temperature during a regular session."

The House has yet to sign off on moving the start date for the 2018 session.

The Florida Constitution allows the Legislature to start session early in even-numbered years. Otherwise, session begins on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March.

Four Republicans and seven Democrats in the Senate opposed having an earlier start in 2018.

They were: Republicans Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers, Jeff Brandes of St. Betersburg, Denise Grimsley of Sebring, and Jack Latvala of Clearwater, and Democrats Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay, Jeremy Ring of Margate, Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood, Darren Soto of Orlando, and Clemens and Braynon.

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.

December 18, 2015

For sale: Ernesto Perez's fancy $2 million Coral Gables home

@MrMikeVasquez

Former Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez is selling his luxurious Coral Gables house. Asking price is $2.15 million.

The two-story Spanish-style home has five bedrooms, six and a half bathrooms, and boasts “Desert Bloom marble floors from Dubai,” according to the sales listing on the Zillow real estate website.

The photos of the 5,291 square-foot home provide a window into how Perez’s for-profit college empire provided a comfortable lifestyle. The master bedroom has a skylight feature, and the room appears to be roughly the size of a studio apartment.

Other amenities: a “stunning gourmet kitchen with Turkish stone counters,” a large pool/jacuzzi, and a “unique Zen Garden.”

Perez’s college suddenly shut down on Oct. 30, after the U.S. Department of Education placed the school under heightened financial scrutiny. For years, some Dade Medical students had complained that the college enrolled them with false promises, and failed to deliver a quality education. At the Hollywood campus, only 13 percent of nursing graduates last year passed the state’s required license exam.

More here.

December 14, 2015

Judge Reynolds starts Senate redistricting trial today -- as each side claims the other drew maps to benefit partisans

Galvano mapThe weeklong redistricting trial scheduled to begin in a Tallahassee courtroom Monday will determine the fate of Florida’s 40 Senate districts and the future of the 29 incumbents seeking reelection.

The rare political scramble is forcing all of them back onto the ballot in November, including many of whom thought they could sit out this election because they were elected to a four-year term in 2014. And they each want to know: Who will have to move to get reelected, who faces new competition and who faces new communities to represent?

The remaining 11 senators are not seeking reelection because they are either leaving because of term limits, or seeking another office.

It is the vestige of the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution that were approved by voters six years ago, and the districts remain in limbo because legislators admitted to manipulating the political boundaries three years ago to benefit Republicans — in violation of the amendments — then tried and failed to redraw the Senate map during a three-week special session.

Now, the job of preparing a new map is left to Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds, and he has only a week to do it. Both sides have submitted maps and each will accuse the other of drawing a map with improper partisan intent.

More here.