May 03, 2017

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.

Session could be extended 'at least by a day,' Trujillo says

@ByKristenMClark @MichaelAuslen

Lawmakers now say they could extend the 60-day legislative session by “at least a day” but perhaps longer, because after days of private negotiations, House and Senate leaders still haven’t reached agreement on major sticking points of both funding and policy for the 2017-18 budget.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, told the Herald/Times around midday Tuesday that budget talks were going well, but it was unlikely legislative leaders would reach compromise on an $83 billion budget before day’s end — the deadline if the session was to end on schedule by Friday.

“We’ll extend at least a day, but I think one day max,” Trujillo said. That would push the session into Saturday, but Trujillo then said lawmakers would “maybe lay [the budget] on the table and come back Monday,” which would require at least an additional three days.

More here.

Miami-Dade state attorney not happy prosecutors won't get raises, while public defenders could

via @DavidOvalle305

Public defenders may be getting pay raises. And prosecutors may not.

And that isn’t sitting well with Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who on Monday emailed her entire staff to apologize — and to criticize Florida lawmakers, saying “our Legislature did not see fit to acknowledge your tireless work on behalf of our community.”

In unusually frank language, the longtime elected Democrat singled out Sen. President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, “who previously stated that he thinks the prosecution has an easier job than the defense,” according to her email.

At issue: Senate Bill 7030 boosts pay for public defenders with three years of experience or more by 6 percent. The bill, which passed the Senate’s appropriations committee on Monday, did not do the same for Florida prosecutors.

The issue, however, is not a done deal as the Senate and House leadership work to hash out final budget before Tuesday.

Full story here.

May 01, 2017

Daisy Baez announces campaign for Frank Artiles' open Senate seat

Daisy baez@ByKristenMClark

Freshman state Rep. Daisy Baez, D-Coral Gables, officially says she's running for the vacant state Senate seat left open after Miami Republican Frank Artiles resigned 10 days ago.

Baez announced her candidacy in a statement Monday, saying the state Senate "is where I believe the most good can be accomplished on behalf of Floridians."

"The people of Miami-Dade deserve to have high quality public schools for their children, good-paying jobs that provide economic security for working families, and access to quality, affordable healthcare," she said. "I look forward to continuing my steadfast advocacy on behalf of Florida families in the State Senate."

Several candidates have expressed interest in Artiles' District 40 seat, which represents a largely Hispanic population and leans Democratic.

Baez is the first to formally launch a campaign for the special election that will determine Artiles' replacement. Due to House rules prohibiting fundraising during the legislative session, Baez cannot begin raising money for what's expected to be a hotly contested race until after session ends Friday.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott has not yet scheduled that election. He said Monday he's "reviewing it."

Baez was elected to the state House barely six months ago. She won with 51 percent of the vote over Republican John Couriel. She represents District 114 in southeastern Miami, the former seat of Republican Erik Fresen who left office in 2016 due to term limits.

Baez was born in the Dominican Repubican and emigrated to the U.S. at age 17. She served in the U.S. Army, where she received numerous medals of achievement, and she now works as the director of the Dominican Health Care Association of Florida.

Last fall, she campaign on a platform of supporting a living wage, equal pay and more money for public education, and of opposing steering taxpayer money to private, for-profit institutes and wants to restore cuts to Bright Futures scholarships.

"As a veteran and an immigrant, I have spent my adult life working hard to repay this country for the incredible opportunities provided to my family and I so we could achieve the American Dream," Baez said Monday. "Serving in the Florida House has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and serving in the Florida Senate will allow me to continue to work on behalf of our community in a much greater capacity."

-- Mary Ellen Klas and Amy Sherman contributed.

Education policy still under negotiation, with promised public meetings perhaps in doubt

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@ByKristenMClark

Heading into the final week of session, House and Senate leaders by Monday morning were still negotiating in secret several pieces of substantial education policy that are tied to the budget -- such as a $200 million idea to create "schools of hope" that would help students in failing schools and a $214 million expansion to teacher bonuses.

Lawmakers had vowed repeatedly, especially in the past several days, that the compromise proposals would be released in time for Floridians to provide meaningful comment before a vote on the annual budget, but no language has been released yet -- although House and Senate leaders had said it would come over the weekend.

MORE: "As clock ticks, lawmakers’ compromises on education policy remain a mystery"

Just Saturday, Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, promised public meetings to consider the policy bills "one by one," and House pre-K-12 budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said, "I do believe you will see that go on in public," in reference to open, public debate among lawmakers prior to any vote or final compromise on language.

But on Sunday night, House Appropriations chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, deflected from the two chambers' previous promises of transparency, telling reporters that he personally never guaranteed public hearings on any policy bills linked to the 2017-18 budget.

"I’m not sure if we’ll have an opportunity for public comment, because we're still working on the bills," Trujillo initially told reporters, noting there was really only about 48 hours or so to shore them up.

After House budget director JoAnne Leznoff interjected and he conferred with her, Trujillo then said at least one more public hearing would be held to address only the budget-related legislation, which also includes environmental policy and other topics. (An email a short while later from Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said there would be an additional meeting on remaining budget items, too.)

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, set the tone and expectation of transparency for this session by promising "unprecedent openness" and a genuine change from how legislative business had been done in previous years. That hasn't turned out to be the case.

MORE: “ ‘Unprecedented openness’ slams shut as Corcoran, Negron forge secret budget deal

Diaz and Senate pre-K-12 budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, each told the Herald/Times on Sunday there were still disagreements on language that legislative staff was working out. Simmons added that the Senate was waiting on a House offer, but he remained optimistic that the chambers would reach middle ground on a final product that would have broad support.

Trujillo could not say when the policy bills would be released or how much time Floridians would have to analyze them before they're finalized. Unlike the budget -- which requires a 72-hour cooling-off period -- conforming bills need to be done only 24 hours before lawmakers vote on the budget, he said. Session is scheduled to end Friday.

Fort Lauderdale Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston, who sits on the Pre-K-12 Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said he was eager to know what the final language for the education bills, in particular, looks like. "I think it's important that we, as a body as well as a community, know exactly where we're going with them," Thurston said.

"I'm not for the 'schools of hope.' I would like to see the final formation and what are we going to do and what's going to be included in it," he added. "I think the process of kicking everything up (to Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron) is not transparent at all."

Image credit: House Appropriations chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. Florida Channel

April 29, 2017

Cruz: Senate chairman who opposes slavery memorial 'knows he can say this and be revered at home'

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@ByKristenMClark

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz is among those upset and offended by a conservative Senate chairman's explanation on Friday for why he blocked a bill to establish a Florida Slavery Memorial near the Capitol in Tallahassee.

Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, who chairs the Senate's government operations committee, had told the Herald/Times a memorial to slavery would be too negative and would "celebrate defeat" -- remarks, among others, that were viewed as racially insensitive and sparked immediate backlash from House Democrats and members of the black caucus.

Baxley later clarified that by "defeat" he meant "adversity" but his explanation didn't quell the outrage.

MORE: "A senator said a Florida Slavery Memorial would ‘celebrate defeat.’ Lawmakers are furious."

After what Baxley said, Cruz remarked that a "real issue" in Florida is the redrawing of legislative districts in ways that have created politically safe seats for one party or another.

"Gerrymandering has given members in these safe seats, on both sides, the ability to say what the hell they want to say without answering to a district," the Tampa lawmaker told the Herald/Times, venting her frustration late Friday.

"Baxley knows he can say this and be revered at home," Cruz added. "So throwing red meat today and making those comments, he has no fear."

She said Floridians asked for "compact, contiguous districts that more fairly represent the people" and she noted that registered Democrats outweigh registered Republicans in Florida, while the number of voters with no party affiliation are "skyrocketing."

"Yet we still have members that can make what I call a racist remark and go back to their district and not worry about getting re-elected," she said.

Photo credit: AP

David Rivera is hanging out in Frank Artiles' old Senate office

Rivera@ByKristenMClark

Former U.S. Rep. David Rivera appears to be testing out the digs of a state legislative office that he might seek to occupy one day soon.

Rivera, a Republican, was seen casually hanging out in the Capitol office of former Sen. Frank Artiles on Friday evening -- socializing and bantering with a handful of people who appeared to be Artiles' remaining legislative staff and others.

One of Artiles' legislative aides, Alina Garcia, used to work for Rivera when he was a state House member from 2000-2008.

Artiles, R-Miami, resigned one week ago Friday after a firestorm brought on several days earlier when Artiles insulted a fellow lawmaker and used a racial slur to describe several other senators in an alcohol-laced tirade at a private Tallahassee bar.

Rivera's name has been floated as a potential candidate to fill Artiles' vacant seat, representing District 40 in Miami-Dade County. (Rivera unsuccessfully ran for a state House seat last fall.)

After Artiles' resignation, his legislative staff was kept on to provide continued constituent services until voters select his replacement in an upcoming special election, which Gov. Rick Scott has not yet scheduled.

From the hallway, Artiles' old office looks rather empty -- and the name-plate outside his door has been changed.

It now reads only: "District 40."

Photo credit: El Nuevo Herald file photo

House, Senate agree to small increase in K-12 public school spending

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From Brandon Larrabee at the News Service of Florida:

The House and Senate agreed to a relatively modest increase in per-student funding for public schools Friday, as negotiations continued over state spending for the budget year that begins July 1.

Under an agreement reached by leaders, per-student spending through the state's main formula for schools would increase 0.34 percent, or $24.49 a head. Discussions on other education projects were expected to continue.

Lawmakers' ability to significantly increase per-student funding was hampered by two decisions that carried out other House priorities: to not allow local education property taxes to rise with real estate values, and to plow more than $400 million into teacher bonuses and the House's "schools of hope" proposal.

Neither of those two items is included in the main formula, known as the Florida Education Finance Program, or FEFP. But lawmakers involved in the education budget talks said not accounting for the additional spending doesn't give a full picture of what the Legislature is doing for education.

"It's been our theme from the very beginning that we're going to laser-target those students in the high-need areas," said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who chairs the House's education budget subcommittee.

Continue reading "House, Senate agree to small increase in K-12 public school spending" »

April 28, 2017

Black lawmakers, Democrats irate after senator says slavery memorial would 'celebrate defeat'

Stand Your Ground (3)@ByKristenMClark

House Democrats and members of the legislative black caucus are offended and irate after a conservative Senate committee chairman said Friday the reason he didn’t hear a bill to create the first slavery memorial in Florida was because he didn’t want to “celebrate defeat.”

“I would rather celebrate overcoming the heartbreak of slavery. I wouldn’t want to build a memorial to child abuse; I wouldn’t want to build a memorial to sexual abuse,” Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley told the Herald/Times for a story that was published online midday Friday. “I have a discomfort about memorializing slavery. ... I would like to take it in a more positive direction than a memorial to slavery.”

His comments came as the House voted unanimously that day — with roaring applause — to build the Florida Slavery Memorial near the Capitol in Tallahassee. Despite the House support, the proposal stalled in the Senate because Baxley had what another senator described as a “philosophical objection” to the concept.

Baxley — the chairman of the Senate Government Oversight & Accountability Committee who is known for his conservative positions and supporting symbols of the Confederacy — never scheduled a hearing because he said a memorial recognizing slavery would be too negative.

“It was very perplexing to say the least but can easily be taken as an insult,” Rep. Kionne McGhee, a black Democrat from Miami and the sponsor of the slavery memorial bill (HB 27), said of Baxley’s explanation. “His verbiage — if I were to read it as is — without an immediate clarification, it is borderline racism.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. AP