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" »

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.

 

February 03, 2016

Bill addressing backyard gun ranges heads to Gov. Rick Scott

@ByKristenMClark

Perhaps the least controversial gun-related measure before the Legislature this session is on its way to Republican Gov. Rick Scott's desk for his signature.

SB 130 would make it a misdemeanor crime to fire a gun outdoors recreationally, including for target shooting, in a primarily residential area.

It's aimed at protecting public safety by prohibiting backyard gun ranges in densely populated areas. Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, said the bill was prompted by the growing prominence of such ranges, which he said are set up "sometimes in a haphazard fashion."

The Senate passed it unanimously last week, and the House did the same Wednesday evening.

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" »

VIDEO: Florida House members react to debate over open carry

@ByKristenMClark

Florida House members were in session until nearly 10 p.m. Tuesday night, spending much of the evening debating two high-profile gun bills: open carry and campus carry.

The open-carry bill was amended with one significant change: To allow lawmakers to carry concealed handguns in legislative sessions and official meetings. It's one of the handful of areas specified in law where licensed gun-owners can't carry concealed.

Here's what Republican and Democratic leaders had to say about that amendment following last night's session, and read our full story here about the evening's debate.

Floor votes on both the campus-carry and open-carry measures are expected this afternoon in the House.

 

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

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@ByKristenMClark

The governor plays cornhole at the Florida Capitol, lawmakers huddle for initial budget talks and controversial gun bills get a floor vote in the House. Here's what we're watching today:

* Proposed plans for the 2016-17 budget will go before the House's and Senate's full appropriations committees. Both chambers have scheduled daylong meetings to debate and revise their respective proposals, which were released Friday. (House Appropriations, 8 a.m., 212 Knott Building. Senate Appropriations, 9 a.m. 412 Knott Buiding)

* Gov. Rick Scott is elevating his efforts to persuade the Legislature to support his call for a $1 billion tax cut and $250 million in business incentives. In a rare move, he's hosting a rally at the Florida Capitol, starting at 11 a.m. It will feature "leaders from around the state" and a specialty cornhole set branded with Scott's slogan of "1st For Jobs."

* The House Finance and Tax Committee, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, plans to formally unveil its "bipartisan" tax cut package -- and "much anticipated" hashtag -- during a press conference after the committee's meeting, set for 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

* More than 100 employees of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa plan to visit with House and Senate members to help draw support for a $3 billion gaming compact, which the Seminole tribe and the governor signed but which the Legislature is hesitant to back.

* The House convenes for session at 3. After heated debate yesterday evening, the chamber is expected to pass two controversial gun bills and consider a slew of other legislation on the table.

Photo credit: Gov. Rick Scott's office

February 02, 2016

Under revised open-carry bill, Florida lawmakers could carry concealed guns in legislative meetings

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@ByKristenMClark

Florida's 160 lawmakers could inconspicuously pack heat in the state House and Senate chambers and legislative meetings, under a provision tacked on to a controversial open-carry handguns proposal that's expected to pass the Florida House on Wednesday.

The amendment by Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, was one of almost two dozen proposed changes that representatives vetted -- and a handful they approved -- during three hours of debate that stretched past 9 p.m. Tuesday over two high-profile gun bills.

The measures alter how 1.4 million people with concealed weapons permits in Florida can carry handguns.

The Republican-dominated House accepted Wood's idea by a 72-43 vote to allow lawmakers to carry concealed guns in legislative sessions and official meetings, but it's possible the change could prove fatal for the measure, which already faced a tough climb in the Senate.

Both the open-carry measure and another that would allow permit-holders to carry concealed on public university and college campuses are likely to pass the House. But across the Capitol, Senate Judiciary Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said he won't hear the campus-carry proposal in his committee for the second year in a row, and he indicated last week he could change his mind and not hear the open-carry plan, either.

The two measures are endorsed by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups, but opponents cite numerous safety concerns.

Heading into Tuesday's House debate, more than 40 amendments were filed to the open-carry bill but almost half were later withdrawn; those were mostly rebuttals that bill sponsor and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, initially sought.

All but one of the others -- Wood's -- were filed by Democrats, as an attempt to chip away at the proposal and add exclusions to where concealed-carry permit-holders could openly carry. Each Democratic amendment failed by wide margins with almost entirely Republican support.

Continue reading "Under revised open-carry bill, Florida lawmakers could carry concealed guns in legislative meetings" »

44 amendments filed to Florida House open-carry bill ahead of today's scheduled floor debate

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@ByKristenMClark

The discourse over gun rights versus gun control will be on full display in the Florida House this afternoon.

The chamber's 120 representatives are set to debate a high-profile and controversial measure that would allow 1.4 million people with concealed weapons permits in Florida openly carry their weapons statewide.

As of late Monday, 44 amendments -- including four that were subsequently withdrawn -- had been filed to HB 163,  a little more than half of them by Democrats seeking to shore up or chip away at what they described last week as flawed legislation.

They're unlikely to be successful in the Republican-majority chamber, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- the sponsor of the bill who says he wants to "vindicate" Floridians' Second Amendment rights by legalizing open carry -- filed 21 of the proposed changes, many of them substitute amendments that appear to counter the Democratic proposals.

Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, has brought back an amendment he attempted but later withdrew during last week's lengthy and heated hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. It would allow lawmakers to carry concealed in legislative sessions and official meetings.

Among the Democratic amendments, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, of Coral Springs, leads the pack with 16 proposed changes. Rep. Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey has proposed four others, and Rep. Joseph Geller of Aventura offered two.

Their proposals include:

Continue reading "44 amendments filed to Florida House open-carry bill ahead of today's scheduled floor debate" »

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.