May 01, 2017

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

Once on chopping block, Miami arts school could still get some state aid next year

Oscars Diversity@ByKristenMClark @KyraGurney

Lawmakers in Tallahassee are largely reversing course on plans to cut $650,000 in state grant funding to the Miami arts school whose alumni helped create the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight” and the Broadway hit “Hamilton.”

During ongoing budget talks Saturday morning, the Florida House asked for $500,000 for New World School of the Arts in 2017-18. That would still represent a cut of $150,000 in funding from last year, but it’s a drastic change from the House’s first proposal to entirely de-fund the school.

The funding level is still under negotiation — talks that now elevate to the full Appropriations chairmen and will continue through the weekend. The Senate had also originally proposed cutting all funding to New World, but later proposed $20,000.

MORE: “Lawmakers set to defund Miami school that educated makers of ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Hamilton’ ”

Threats to the school’s state grant funding sparked public outcry when news of the Legislature’s plans spread on Friday. 

But House and Senate chairmen in charge of K-12 public school spending said Saturday morning those complaints had little to do with their change of heart.

Full details here.

Photo credit: AP

Corcoran: Gov. Rick Scott is 'the problem with recess,' not Legislature

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@ByKristenMClark

House Speaker Richard Corcoran offered a curious statement shortly after midnight Saturday: It’s not lawmakers who have a “problem with recess” — it’s Gov. Rick Scott.

Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, made the remark in a tweet with no additional explanation. The Herald/Times has requested clarification from Corcoran’s office and also sought comment from Scott’s spokeswoman. (This story will be updated when they respond.)

“Recess moms” were immediately perplexed by Corcoran’s mystery tweet, which was in direct response to a question from an advocate for daily school recess.

More here.

Photo credit: Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

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

Welcome to Camp Tallahassee's Superlatives 2017: Who's going to be most likely...?

SuperlativeAs the Florida House was engaged in deep discussion Friday over things like whether to give more power to law enforcement to crack down illegal immigration, two freshmen House members were circulating a little survey in search of a colleagues "most likely to fall asleep," or the "best dressed" or the "life of the party."

Patterned after the popular summer camp and high school practice, Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, and Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, circulated the "2017 member superlatives" aimed at deciding which of the 120 members of the House should be given important designations.

"The Women’s Caucus is pleased to request your anonymous responses to the 2017 member superlatives,'' they wrote. "Please drop off at Rep Alex Miller or Rep Jackie Toledo’s office on the 14th floor (or in person). All 120 members of the House are included. Please submit responses by 5 pm on Monday May 1st."

Here's what they're looking for: 

Best debater; Best closer; Best policy wonk;Most likely to fall asleep; Most likely to put members to sleep; Most likely to promise free lunch & extra recess; Most likely to be on a reality TV show; Most likely to be late for committee;Teacher’s pet; Most Helpful; Best Office; Best dressed – male; Best dressed – female; Mr. Congeniality;  Ms. Congeniality; Funniest member; Life of the party;  Most likely to not know names; Most likely to moonlight as an Uber driver; Favorite new male freshman; and, of course, Favorite new female freshman.  Download 2017 Superlatives

Meanwhile, it was a busy day in the Florida Capitol. House and Senate budget conference committees met briefly to negotiated details to the $83 billion budget, but spent no time publicly discussing or debating the details. The Florida House passed a bill to create a slavery memorial at the state Capitol complex (HB 27) and the House agreed to seal criminal records from the public eye but didn't discuss it (HB 118.) 

'Schools of hope' compromise hatched -- in secret

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@ByKristenMClark

Lawmakers secretly struck a tentative compromise Thursday on one of the most consequential education reforms of the 2017 session — a $200 million program to help students who attend perpetually failing K-12 public schools in Florida.

Specifics of the proposed deal were not released, as some of it was still being finalized, House and Senate pre-K-12 education budget chairmen said late Thursday. But the general description of the agreement was enough to earn initial support from some House Democrats, who had — until very recently — staunchly opposed the concept.

“We’re happy they listened to us and a lot of the ideas we had in committee,” said Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, who helped negotiate the compromise on the Democrats’ behalf. “We’re happy with the direction they’re going in.”

That direction, Jones said, involves the House seeking middle ground with what school superintendents have asked for and with the Senate’s more blended proposal: Provide more financial aid and other resources to failing traditional public schools first, before implementing more drastic options, such as inviting competition from new charter schools.

More here.

Photo credit: Altamonte Springs Republican Sen. David Simmons and Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. -- the Senate and House pre-K-12 education budget chairmen -- talk with reporters after a budget conference committee meeting on April 27, 2017. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau.

House considers letting elected officials have secret meetings

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida Constitution and the state’s famed Sunshine Law give residents the right to know about and observe meetings held by the elected officials who represent them and make decisions on their behalf.

But a bill going to the state House floor on Friday would effectively thwart significant aspects of that constitutional guarantee and potentially render it meaningless by allowing local elected officials — from city and county commissioners to school board members — to meet behind closed doors and discuss public matters in secret.

The proposed law (HB 843) from Naples Republican Rep. Byron Donalds would exempt from open meetings requirements any gatherings between two members of a local, county or state agency board or commission. Those officials wouldn’t have to give any notice about their meeting and they wouldn’t have to keep any records of what they discuss. (The exemption would apply to boards or commissions with at least five members.)

Donalds argues that the Sunshine Law needs to be more practical in letting local elected officials conduct public business.

RELATED: “House votes to make secret the applicants for top college, university posts”

“If we’re going to be honest with ourselves and have a balance between proper governance and transparency, it is incumbent on local officials to be able to talk with each other so they come up with the best solutions possible,” said Donalds, whose wife, Erika, is an elected school board member in Collier County.

“This is where we have to be adults about this,” Donalds added. “Not every conversation is ready for public consumption.”

More here.

April 27, 2017

College, university emergency response plans will be out of Sunshine

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@ByKristenMClark

The substance of plans Florida’s public college and universities have for responding to campus emergencies or threats will soon be kept secret, under a proposed law that is on its way to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The measure creates an exemption in Florida’s public records law that shields from disclosure such materials as photographs, presentations, sheltering arrangements, training manuals and equipment and supplies related to emergency response strategies.

Senators approved HB 1079 by a 36-0 vote on Thursday without any debate, a week after the House also passed it unanimously.

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo