May 22, 2017

Conservative group thanks senators, urges Scott approval of schools bill

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@ByKristenMClark

A national Hispanic conservative group is showing its gratitude to 18 Republican state lawmakers who were crucial to passing a controversial and charter-friendly K-12 public schools bill, in the hopes of building more support for Gov. Rick Scott to sign the legislation into law.

The LIBRE Initiative -- which is supported by the Koch Brothers -- is mailing out bilingual fliers this week to voters represented by the three House members and 15 senators. The group is letting residents know their senator supported HB 7069 and is urging the resident to ask Scott to approve it.

The Initiative and another Koch-affiliated group, Americans for Prosperity, are among the school choice proponents of HB 7069 that want to see it enacted -- in contrast to county school superintendents, almost all elected school boards, and parent groups and teachers unions that want the legislation vetoed.

"Right now, too many Florida students are trapped in failing schools that are not meeting their educational needs. This is why it is essential for Governor Scott to sign H.B. 7069 into law and empower students and parents with more options to choose schools that better serve their educational needs," Cesar Grajales, the LIBRE Initiative’s coalitions director, said in a statement. "We urge Gov. Scott to quickly sign this bill and remove unnecessary barriers so our students don’t have to remain stuck in schools that are failing to provide a quality education."

Those targeted by the mailers are: House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes, and Reps. Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah and Michael Bileca of Miami; and Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart and Sens. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers, Rob Bradley of Fleming Island, Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, Anitere Flores of Miami (shown above), Bill Galvano of Bradenton, Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, Debbie Mayfield of Vero Beach, Kathleen Passidomo of Naples, Keith Perry of Gainesville, Wilton Simpson of Trilby, Kelli Stargel of Lakeland, Greg Steube of Sarasota and Dana Young of Tampa.

Corcoran, Diaz and Bileca shepherded HB 7069 through the House, one of the chamber's top priorities of session. The 15 senators listed represent most of the 20 Republican senators whose votes were vital in ensuring HB 7069 passed.

It was approved on a 20-18 vote in the Senate, so one more opposing vote would have killed it. (Flores was the only Miami-Dade County senator to support it.)

The LIBRE Initiative's latest direct-mail campaign comes two weeks ago after the group sent out mailers hailing five select Republicans -- Negron, Corcoran, Diaz, Bileca and Clearwater Rep. Chris Latvala -- who were key to pushing through the school choice measure in the final days of session.

May 18, 2017

In Liberty City, Richard Corcoran lauds rogue Democrat for supporting 'Schools of Hope'

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@ByKristenMClark

Miami Democratic Rep. Roy Hardemon had an unlikely and influential ally showering him with praise in his legislative district Wednesday: House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

“[Hardemon] doesn’t care who’s got power. He doesn’t care what the status quo is. He doesn’t care whether he gets elected,” Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, said in brief remarks on stage for the groundbreaking of the Liberty Square redevelopment project, with Hardemon at his side.

Hardemon, a freshman lawmaker, secured himself in Corcoran’s good graces last week, when he broke from the House Democratic caucus to support a controversial $419 million K-12 public schools bill that Corcoran and House Republicans unveiled and successfully pushed through in the final days of session.

Hardemon was the only Democrat in either the House or Senate to vote in favor of HB 7069.

“He doesn’t fear. What he cares about is his community,” Corcoran said, before touting a key provision of HB 7069 that’s meant to help neighborhoods like Liberty City.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, left, R-Land O’Lakes, sits with Rep. Roy Hardemon, D-Miami, while they attend the groundbreaking ceremony to for the Liberty Square Rising project in Liberty City on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Matias J. Ocner / For the Miami Herald

May 08, 2017

Lawmakers will decide major K-12 policy, spending today -- and rest of 2017-18 budget

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@ByKristenMClark

A swift outcry of condemnation came over the weekend from many parents, teachers and school administrators who want the Florida Legislature to reject a $419 million, 278-page K-12 public schools bill — which was decided behind closed doors, which lawmakers cannot change and which they’ll have had only about 72 hours to review when they vote Monday.

House and Senate members will decide the fate of HB 7069 as part of several up-or-down votes on a 2017-18 budget package. The Legislature extended its annual session until 11:59 p.m. Monday with the intent of passing an $82.4 billion spending plan, its single constitutional obligation.

MORE: “All eyes on the Florida budget as lawmakers return to state Capitol for one final act”

Public education advocates, like the Florida PTA and other groups, and superintendents — including Miami-Dade County Public Schools chief Alberto Carvalho — aim to convince their elected representatives to vote “no.” Such an outcome is unlikely but not unprecedented, and it would potentially call the entire budget into question because of the major dollars attached.

“I’ve spoken to so many senators — both parties — who are opposed to so many portions of that bill,” Broward County Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said. “The question is: Will they have the fortitude to vote no?”

More here.

Photo credit: Carl Juste / Miami Herald

May 07, 2017

'Monday’s vote is about more than recess,' disappointed parents say of education budget bill

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@ByKristenMClark

Passionate parents, like Kate Asturias of Miami and Angela Browning of Orlando, have been fighting for years to get guaranteed daily recess for their children and the more than 1.2 million other kids in Florida’s public elementary schools.

The two moms trekked to Tallahassee on Friday, for the countless time, hoping to see lawmakers finally make that happen. They left disappointed once again.

The favored proposal of “recess moms” and dads that unanimously passed the Senate a month ago (SB 78) wasn’t brought to the floor by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, before Friday’s session deadline — despite parents’ numerous emails and phone calls urging him to take up the bill, which had the votes to pass easily.

Instead, Corcoran prolonged a conclusion to the recess proposal by lumping it — with a never-before-seen exemption parents didn’t ask for — into a 278-page education budget bill released Friday evening, three days before lawmakers will vote Monday on an annual budget package they can’t change.

Filled with disappointment and anger, parents vented their frustration in social media groups this weekend — and some now have a message for their lawmakers: Don’t vote “yes” on this bill just so Florida’s kids can be assured recess.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

May 04, 2017

A possible explanation for why the House hasn't heard school recess

SP_409499_KEEL_2_FLGOV@ByKristenMClark

Because Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, hasn't brought the Senate-approved recess bill to the House floor (and there are no indications of that changing), the fate of that proposal now rests almost entirely on negotiations between the House and Senate over a massive education policy bill that must be resolved by the end of Friday.

Although session extended until Monday, that extra time applies only to the budget and "conforming" policy bills linked to that. All other run-of-the-mill policy bills -- such as the one mandating 20 minutes of daily recess in elementary schools -- die when floor sessions end Friday, the original scheduled end of session.

To keep recess in the conversation, Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores included it in a 72-page rewrite of another education bill that was published late Wednesday and could be heard on the Senate floor Thursday.

MORE: "Short on time, lawmakers seek to cram in new education policies — from testing to recess"

But why is school recess -- a measure overwhelmingly wanted by parents and one that could easily pass the House if brought to the floor -- up for negotiation in the first place?

Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman, offered one possible explanation Wednesday.

"That's a good question. We got to this point in session, and it's still up in the air, but as the speaker, I believe, said it’s still in play," Diaz said, adding: "We didn’t take that up, but if you look at it holistically, why didn’t they [the Senate] take up the single-policy education bills that we sent over?"

"We didn’t take up recess? I’ll shoot back and say, 'why didn’t you take up the schools of [hope]?' That’s the same for both sides," he added. "I’d have love to have been passing these individual policies, so it was clear and transparent. We sent them over but they’re not being picked up."

Corcoran previously has declined interview requests from the Herald/Times to discuss the recess bill, and he hasn't publicly explained why he won't take up the Senate bill as parents have pleaded with him to do through now more than a thousand emails and many dozen phone calls. Corcoran, a couple weeks ago, said there was still time to address recess, but he made no guarantees it would be heard.

Photo credit: Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

Will Senate reach bipartisan compromise on testing reforms, education policy?

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@ByKristenMClark

With two days left for lawmakers to enact policy this session, two Republican senators late Wednesday released what’s essentially a brand-new bill that salvages a myriad of stalled education proposals, while also preserving one of the Legislature’s top K-12 priorities: Reforms addressing excessive standardized testing in Florida public schools.

Sens. Anitere Flores, of Miami, and Kelli Stargel, of Lakeland, filed their 72-page amendment at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday to rewrite a House-approved education bill that had been just 17 pages in length.

Their new version of HB 549 also, notably, keeps in play for negotiation a parent-demanded proposal that mandates daily recess in Florida’s public elementary schools. The Senate approved the idea in early April, but House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, ignored parents' pleas to bring the standalone measure to the floor, even though it has the votes to easily pass.

HB 549 was one of two bills House members envisioned could be a vehicle for testing reforms — and various unresolved education policies — before session ends. It passed the House last Friday, 117-1, but Flores’ and Stargel’s amendment creates a bill much broader than the House considered.

More here.

Photo credit: AP

May 03, 2017

Democrats' criticism complicates Senate's testing reform plans

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@ByKristenMClark

Lawmakers’ session-long efforts to substantively address over-testing in Florida’s public schools are stumbling to the finish line this week, after one key Democrat came out against a compromise bill senators will keep refining into Thursday.

Senate Democrats said legislation that’s supposed to reduce testing and otherwise improve the assessment regimen (SB 926) barely makes any major changes and is, instead, turning into a problematic hodgepodge of education policy they’re reluctant to support.

Time runs short. For the testing reforms to pass this year, both the House and Senate have to approve identical language before Friday.

A total re-write of SB 926 is possible overnight. It would attempt to address concerns from Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford and other senators, as well as school district superintendents — who say the legislation doesn’t go far enough to eliminate duplicative tests or afford schools the option of administering exams by pencil and paper (instead of by computer) among other reforms.

RELATED: “Senate committee strikes compromise toward reducing student assessment tests”

Venting his frustration early Wednesday, Montford — whose widely praised, bipartisan testing reform proposal was shelved so that Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores’ less comprehensive plan supported by Jeb Bush’s influential education foundation could advance instead — told his Democratic colleagues that if he’d had to vote that day, “I’d vote against this bill.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. AP

House wants to exempt police from 3-day waiting period to buy guns

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@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House, by a near-unanimous vote, agreed Wednesday morning to send a constitutional amendment to voters in 2018 that would exempt law enforcement officers from Florida’s mandatory three-day waiting period for purchasing handguns.

But despite the favorable outcome, the measure isn’t likely to be put on next year’s ballot this spring, because the Senate companion measures were not heard in that chamber’s committees. The Senate would have to make the rare move of taking up the House proposals straight on the floor before Friday.

The House legislation (HJR 291 and HB 673) — a resolution putting the measure on the ballot and a bill to implement it — were a bipartisan effort between Reps. Don Hahnfeldt, R-The Villages, and Robert Asencio, D-Miami.

More here.

Photo credit: Rep. Robert Asencio, D-Miami. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times.

Statewide condo association reforms, led by Dade Delegation, headed to Rick Scott's desk

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In case you missed it, Miami-Dade lawmakers this week successfully saw the Legislature pass statewide reforms to how condominium associations are operated -- legislation that was one of the Dade Delegation's top priorities this session.

The reforms, now subject to Gov. Rick Scott's final approval, come about a year after an investigative series by el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 that revealed corruption in South Florida condo associations and later sparked a grand jury investigation and formal report earlier this year. Miami-Dade lawmakers credited el Nuevo Herald's and Univision 23's reporting, and the passion of local condo owners as having helped to shed light on the issue and to get the reforms passed this year. 

More on this week's news from el Nuevo Herald reporter Brenda Medina:

The Florida Senate on Monday gave unanimous and final approval to a bill that imposes criminal penalties on condominium violations such as electoral fraud, theft of funds and conflicts of interests — all significant problems in Miami-Dade County.

The 37-0 vote on the bill, already endorsed by the House last week in another unanimous vote, now goes to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.

“This is very important for Miami-Dade because it’s something that condo owners have been waiting for for nearly a decade,” said Hialeah Republican Sen. René Garcia, who co-sponsored the bill with Miami Democrat José Javier Rodríguez. “But the reforms will help all Florida residents with similar problems.”

García declared from the Senate floor that the problem of fraud and other abuses in Miami-Dade condo associations was out of control and that some homeowners’ associations had turned into “mini dictatorships” or “totalitarian regimes.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: Condominium owners from Miami-Dade County pose in the Capitol in Tallahassee on Monday, May 1, 2017. Brenda Medina / el Nuevo Herald

May 02, 2017

Back to business as usual for Erik Fresen

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@KyraGurney

Former Florida state representative Erik Fresen was back to business as usual on Tuesday, speaking at an education event in Miami less than a week after pleading guilty to failing to file a tax return for 2011.  

The former House education budget chairman was a panelist at an event organized by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce on education options in the downtown area. Fresen advocated for charter schools and discussed the need to better promote the strength of Miami-Dade schools to business interests and families in the downtown area.

Fresen, who represented House District 114 until he was term-limited last year, has ties to the charter school industry. He has worked as a land-use consultant for Miami architecture firm Civica, which has done work for charter school management company Academica, whose founder is Fresen's brother-in-law.

One topic Fresen did not discuss at Monday's event: his tax troubles. In a statement filed with his plea agreement, Fresen admitted to failing to file federal tax returns between 2007 and 2016, eight years of which he served as a state legislator. Fresen still owes at least $100,000 in back taxes, according to prosecutors.

At the panel discussion, held at the Hilton Miami Downtown, Fresen dodged a question from the Miami Herald about why he had not filed federal income tax returns. Fresen faces from probation up to one year in prison for his misdemeanor conviction and will be sentenced in August.