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February 11, 2016

Florida Senate's reforms on school districts' capital spending differs on charter school aid


Responding to a controversial plan fast-tracked by Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, a Florida Senate subcommittee is proposing its own reforms to how much school districts can spend on capital costs and what access the state's 650 charter schools should have to state and local dollars.

But the Senate's ideas don't go so far in charter schools' favor as those included in Fresen's proposal, which was advanced by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

Rather, the counter-proposal unveiled Thursday by the Senate's education budget chairman, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, could actually limit charter schools' potential funding, while still reining in how much districts spend on projects.

It would crackdown on what Gaetz called charter school "real-estate schemes" by prohibiting schools from using taxpayer dollars on "private enrichment" projects.

It also does away with what Senate staff called a "fairly tricky, involved" funding formula that decides how much capital money individual charter schools get and, instead, would prioritize money to schools that help primarily impoverished students or those with disabilities.

"We felt that we would try to add our values to the discussion," Gaetz said Thursday, adding that his plan "re-syncs the values" originally intended for charter schools of offering quality, alternative schools in low-income neighborhoods or innovative programs not offered in traditional public schools.

"I think to some extent we may have gotten away from that a little bit," said Gaetz, a former superintendent of the Okaloosa County School District. "We want to weight it in favor of those charter schools who have a social conscience."

It's unclear how the proposal might fare in the House, where a few key members -- including Fresen -- have close ties to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed. (A member of Gaetz’s committee, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, also has connections; he and his wife run a charter school.) 

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Fact-checking the Seminoles' ad about gaming compact

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is trying to convince the Legislature that approving a new gaming compact is a safe bet.

As lawmakers consider a plan negotiated between the Seminoles and Gov. Rick Scott, the tribe has started running commercials with the message that the agreement helps the state. One of the ads ticks off several benefits of the deal Scott has touted to the Legislature, which has been reluctant to agree to the compact.

"The governor authorized a new and unprecedented Seminole compact: Nearly 20,000 new Florida jobs; $3 billion in guaranteed revenue, the largest share for any state in history; and for the first time, empowering the Legislature to limit expansion to keep Florida's entertainment options family friendly," the commercial said.

That’s a lot to pack into one 30-second spot. PolitiFact Florida was especially curious about the $3 billion in payments the tribe promised the state. Is it really the most any state has received from Indian gaming in history?

It looks like the odds are in the tribe’s favor.

See what Joshua Gillin of PolitiFact Florida found and all of our fact-checks about gambling.

Scott's tax cuts could take hit as Senate revamps school spending

The Senate on Thursday rolled out its proposal for higher per-pupil spending for public schools, but at the expense of Gov. Rick Scott's goal of $1 billion in tax cuts next year.

The strategy reflects the will of senators to shape tax policy around small businesses and homeowners, not corporations that are favored under Scott's tax cut plan. The move puts the Senate squarely at odds with Scott and with the House, which supports Scott's proposal to boost K-12 spending largely by imposing higher property tax payments on homeowners and business owners as their property values rise across the state.

About 84 percent of Scott's school spending increase would come from higher property taxes. Senators call that a tax increase, and Scott's office calls that "flat wrong." This increasingly testy battle centers on the element of school funding known as required local effort, a state-mandated property tax millage rate that school districts must impose by July 1.

The Senate wants to split the school spending increase evenly between local property taxes and state tax revenue. With more than 35,000 new students projected to enroll in Florida schools next fall, the Senate would boost per-pupil spending by $651 million, more than Scott's budget would. The Senate formula uses $324 million from local property taxes and $326 million from state tax revenue,  and a draft of the proposal calls it a "tax cut." The proposal is not yet in the Senate budget, which awaits a floor vote Thursday afternoon. 

Senate President Andy Gardiner endorses the plan by the two key senators who shape the education budget, Republicans Tom Lee of Brandon and  Don Gaetz of Niceville, who defend their approach as a better way to give tax relief to Florida families. Politically, the die is cast with one of two likely outcomes. Either the Senate will get its way and defeat Scott on a major tax policy issue or the Senate will lose to Scott and the House -- in which case senators will claim Scott is raising taxes in an election year.

Were Jeb Bush's picks for the Florida Supreme Court consistent conservatives?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s positions on some issues, such as immigration, have been to the left of other members of the GOP presidential field. But last month, Bush laid down a marker on his own conservatism: his selection of conservative judges.

"I have a proven record of appointing conservatives to the Florida judiciary as governor, and my administration devoted substantial time to vetting nominees,"Bush wrote in an article for Medium. "We sought judges who had shown humility, courage, an appreciation of the duties of a judge, a respect for the will of the people, and devotion to full application of the law without equivocation. My two appointments to the Florida Supreme Court, Raul Cantero and Kenneth Bell, have earned reputations as its most consistent conservatives. Additionally, two of the appellate judges I named as governor, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, are now serving with distinction on the Florida Supreme Court."

We wondered whether Bush was right that Cantero and Bell "have earned reputations as its most consistent conservatives." Our research suggests that Bush has a point, though the case is stronger for Bell than for Cantero.

See what Louis Jacobson of PolitiFact found.

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

The state budget becomes the focal point in the Florida Legislature today. Here's a look at five things we will be watching today.

* After a combined more than seven hours of debate on the proposed state budget on Wednesday, the House and Senate are back at it today working on very different proposals. The House has a $79.9 billion plan, compared to the Senate having a $81 billion plan. The House meets at 9 a.m. and the Senate at 1 p.m.

* After the budget vote, the House is expected to vote out a $1 billion tax cut package that would include reducing sales taxes on commercial rents. It also includes a 10-day sales tax break on back-to-school shopping, a day of sales tax free shopping for hunting and fishing equipment, and a one-day sales tax free shopping day at small businesses on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It doesn't include Gov. Rick Scott's top requests: elimination of corporate income taxes on manufacturers and retailers.

* Drivers licenses would be harder to suspend for non-driving offenses under a bill State Sen. Jeff Brandes will have up before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice starting at 10 a.m.. A Miami Herald investigation found that 77 percent of all license suspensions in Florida between 2012 and 2015 occurred because of a failure to pay fees.

* Gov. Rick Scott's new jobs chief Cissy Proctor faces her first confirmation hearing. Proctor, the executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, replaced Jesse Panuccio who frequently clashed with state legislators over jobs programs and the state's unemployment benefits system. Proctor faces the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development at 10 a.m.

* The Senate will discuss a House proposal that would limit construction spending for local school districts and give more local tax dollars to charter schools. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education meets at 10 a.m. to take up the proposal.

February 10, 2016

Despite New Hampshire loss, Hillary Clinton supporters see hope in Broward

Hillary Clinton’s campaign opened its first office in South Florida in Democratic-rich Broward County Wednesday night.

Former U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, and former state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston spoke on behalf of Clinton at the opening of her Pompano Beach office.

Clinton supporters expressed optimism about her chances in Florida despite the fact that she just barely beat Bernie Sanders in Iowa and lost by a landslide to him in New Hampshire.

“These are two tiny states that reflect only their own little states,” Klein said, noting that New Hampshire is largely white. “Now we are beginning to campaign into the real states.”

Some Clinton volunteers expressed concern.

“I think she got a real scare,” said Peter Lent, a retired criminal defense attorney from Fort Lauderdale. “I am more worried now than I was six months ago. But I take a long view -- and so does she.”

So far, Clinton has invested far more time in South Florida than Sanders. Both candidates gave speeches at the National Urban League conference in Fort Lauderdale in July, but Clinton also gave a speech in Miami in July as well as at Broward College in Davie in October.

Clinton will hold a public event at the Port of Palm Beach in Riviera Beach at 2 p.m. Monday. She also holds fundraisers in Palm Beach and Miami that day.

The Sanders’ campaign has not announced any events in South Florida leading up to the March 15 primary. Broward has 550,000 registered Democrats -- the highest number in the state -- so the county could play a key role in the primary.

Floridians start voting next week when absentee ballots hit mailboxes. The Broward Supervisor of Elections expects to send 102,000 absentee ballots Tuesday -- the number is 157,000 in Miami-Dade.

Clinton led Sanders 64 to 25 percent in Florida, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polls between Oct. 28 and Jan. 18. But those polls were before the first two states voted.

Clinton and Sanders will face off in a debate in Milwaukee Thursday night.

Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush turn to South Carolina

GOP 2016 Rubio (9) (1)


They yearned for clarity in New Hampshire. Marco Rubio hoped to crystallize his position as the Republican Party’s great presidential hope heading into the South Carolina primary. Jeb Bush intended to prove his political muscle could still be as powerful as his family name and donor fortune.

Neither succeeded.

Bush and Rubio wound up in fourth and fifth place, respectively: Bush topped by another governor, John Kasich of Ohio, and Rubio undone by three minutes of woeful debating on national television. Their results Tuesday made it possible to survive, barely.

Now Bush and Rubio head to the first-in-the-South primary Feb. 20 still competing toe-to-toe with each other for the same spot — and there is, at best, only a single spot — in the GOP: to be the last man standing to confront front-runners Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, if someone can take them on at all.

What comes next won’t be pretty.

More here.

Photo credit: Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

Dems fail to remove ban on Planned Parenthood spending from House budget


Among the most hotly debated issues in the House’s budget proposal Wednesday was language to block all state money from Planned Parenthood.

The chamber’s Department of Health and Agency for Health Care Administration budgets direct that "no funds...may be provided to Planned Parenthood" and "no recipients of funds...shall provide funding to Planned Parenthood directly or indirectly."

It’s a sweeping declaration that would go beyond the state’s existing prohibition on spending taxpayer dollars on abortions.

But an attempt by Democrats to remove the language from the House’s budget proposal failed by a 72-36 vote.

Democrats also spent most of an hour trying to goad House Health Care Appropriations chairman Matt Hudson, R-Naples, into explaining his reasons for putting the language in the budget to begin with. He said once he found out DOH and AHCA were contracting with Planned Parenthood, even for a small amount, he “felt (it) needed to be pulled back.”

“If it is the will of the body to appropriate to any organization, then that should come before this body and not be an indirect thing outside this body,” Hudson said.

In general, state agencies are free to contract with whatever organizations they would like, within guidelines set by the state. But no other organization is specifically prohibited from receiving money in the budget in a way similar to Planned Parenthood.

Rep. Jared Moskowtiz, D-Coral Springs, said the language comes straight from Washington, D.C., where Republicans in Congress this year tried to defund Planned Parenthood. Tax dollars going to the organization in Florida are from federal funds earmarked for family planning, which five county health departments use to contract with Planned Parenthood.

“The only thing I can see out of this is that it was intentionally to politicize the budget,” Moskowitz said. “I always hear about how much better we are than Washington, but apparently we’re no better than them.”

The language is not in the Senate’s budget. That chamber doesn’t address Planned Parenthood at all but does include an additional $2 million for health services at crisis pregnancy centers.

“We have a little different tactic. We don't specifically reference Planned Parenthood, but what we do is look at crisis pregnancy centers,” President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said. “We say, 'Let's fund programs that do everything but abortions.’”

House, Senate start state budget debate with big differences to resolve

As the 2016 session reached the midway point Wednesday, the Senate and House tentatively approved separate budgets in advance of floor votes Thursday and the start of marathon budget negotiations by next week.

One major difference between the chambers is that the Senate includes Gov. Rick Scott’s priority of a three-year, $250 million incentive fund to attract jobs, and the House does not. Scott has been pushing for the money for months, by soliciting support from local officials and blitzing lawmakers with emails through Enterprise Florida.

“We don’t have additional funding for new incentives in this budget,” State Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, said.

Ingram said House is “working diligently” with the governor’s office on ways to reform how the program is structured. He said they haven’t worked that out yet, but said there is “plenty of time left in the process.”

Senators spent more than two hours discussing their spending plan Wednesday. Most questions focused on eliminating more than 500 vacant jobs in the Department of Health, why the Senate is not providing money to hire more than 273 new correctional officers, and a proposed ranking system for dozens of groups that share about $30 million a year for after-school and mentoring programs.

In the House, it took almost 5 hours to get through the first day of the budget debate. Almost two hours of that time was focused on the health care budget, spurred largely by a Republican proposal to bar state funding from directly or indirectly going to Planned Parenthood. Democrats repeatedly objected to the language and unsuccessfully tried to strip the language from the budget. Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats in the House. Along mostly party lines, the effort to kill the language died on a 36 to 72 vote. The Senate's spending plan does not include the Planned Parenthood language.

The Senate’s $81 billion budget is about $1 billion higher than the House’s, and Gov. Rick Scott proposed a spending plan of $79.3 billion. The House plan is $79.9 billion.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said final budget decisions can’t be made until senators decide how big a package of tax cuts to support, because that will determine how much money they have to spend.

“So much relies on where we land on the subject of tax cuts,” Lee said.

The House has already rolled out a nearly $1 billion tax cut package, but it is vastly different from the $1 billion tax cut plan Scott has publicly sought from the Legislature. The House plan does not include the biggest piece of Scott’s proposal, a $770 million reduction in corporate income taxes for manufacturing and retail companies. Instead the House is relying on a wider range of tax cuts that more people might feel in an election year when most state lawmakers are up for re-election. A 10-day cut in sales taxes on back to school shopping, a one-day reduction on hunting and fishing gear, and the elimination of sales tax on shopping at small business on the Saturday after Thanksgiving are all part of the House plan. In addition, the House is proposing a one-day sales tax reduction on computers, smart phones and other technology.