March 09, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

@ByKristenMClark

With just three days left in the 2016 session, lawmakers are quickly running out of time to shore up legislation they want passed this year. The Senate starts at 10, with the most on its plate; the House has delayed its start to noon in the hopes that the Senate will send some bills back its way.

Here's what we're watching:

* Senators are slated to vote on a massive education bill today that's been delayed the past two days.

* The Senate is also expected to vote on new abortion restrictions that would, among other things, ban state money from paying for preventative care at abortion clinics.

 

* Other items before the Senate: a bill targeting the Florida School Boards Association, a constitutional amendment to give businesses property tax breaks if they buy solar panels, and a proposal allowing immigrants lawfully residing in the U.S. for less than five years to be insured under the state and federal KidCare program.

* Among its relatively short agenda headed into the day, the House is poised to vote on repealing a 148-year-old law that prohibits unmarried couples from living together in Florida. If it passes (as expected), it goes to the governor.

* The Florida Commission on Offender Review meets at 9 a.m. to consider parole cases for criminals convicted in the 1970s and 1980s.

March 08, 2016

It's now legal in Florida to break into cars to rescue vulnerable people, pets

@ByKristenMClark

Floridians can now legally break into locked vehicles to rescue pets or vulnerable people who are "in imminent danger of suffering harm."

HB 131 took effect today and is among 16 bills Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed into law.

The new law is in direct response to a growing number of incidents where pets, children and others have died because they've been left in overheated cars, particularly under Florida's steamy summer sun.

Under the new law, individuals can't be sued for breaking into a car to rescue someone, so long as they have:

-- first checked the vehicle is locked;

-- called 911 or law enforcement before entering the vehicle or immediately after doing so;

-- uses no more force than is necessary to break in;

-- and remains with the person or animal until first-responders arrive.

House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, ushered the proposal through the Legislature this session with unanimous support.

Crackdown on gas-station skimmers goes to Gov. Rick Scott's desk to be signed into law

@ByKristenMClark

Among the bills to clear the Legislature during this last week of the 2016 session is a proposal that cracks down on illegal credit-card skimming devices at gas stations.

SB 912 passed the House unanimously on Tuesday, after unanimously clearing the Senate last week. It now goes to Republican Gov. Rick Scott's desk for his signature.

"Skimmers" are devices that steal credit and debit card information. The legislation requires gas pumps to have certain security measures to better thwart criminals' attempts to install the devices and steal customers' financial information. It also increases law enforcement's ability to make arrests and prosecute criminals with harsher potential penalties.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, with support from state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regularly inspects the state's nearly 8,000 gas stations and has found more than 190 skimmers since the start of 2015, Putnam's office said.

This past week, inspectors found one device in Pompano Beach, two in Tampa and one in Orlando, the office said.

“Protecting consumers from identity theft at gas pumps requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. I thank Senator Flores, Leader Young, the Senate and the House of Representatives for their support of this key consumer protection legislation,” Putnam said today.

Flores and Young added in the statement that the legislative approval is a "victory for consumers."

“Consumers shouldn’t have to worry about identity theft when filling their gas tanks, and this legislation will help protect Floridians and visitors from skimmers," Flores said.

About 100 consumers are victimized by each skimmer, resulting in $1,000 stolen from each victim on average. Each skimmer represents an estimated $100,000 threat to consumers, Putnam's office said.

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today

@ByKristenMClark

Following a late-night budget conference on Monday, the final proposed $80 billion state budget is getting printed and expected to arrive on lawmakers' desks sometime this morning -- starting the clock for the constitutionally required 72-hour waiting period until they can vote on it Friday. That means the Legislature is on track to finish session as scheduled this year.

Meanwhile, here's what we're watching today out of Tallahassee:

* The House is expected to vote on a bill that gives families up to $7,500 to bury the remains of children exhumed in unmarked graves at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in North Florida, west of Tallahassee.

* Other significant bills on the House's agenda today deal with civil asset forfeiture and alimony. The House session starts at 10 a.m.

* The Florida Supreme Court will start to hear appeals from several death-row inmates, who argue their death sentences are no longer valid because the law that was in effect when they were sentenced has been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

* The Senate will consider a bill (SB 766/HB 499) that would set limits on local value adjustment boards' consideration of property value petitions. This is a priority for Miami-Dade County officials, who say the current process "short-changes" the school district by delaying tax revenue the district relies on.

* Gov. Rick Scott plans to make a "major economic announcement" for 2017 at 11 a.m. at Orlando's Citrus Bowl Varsity Club.

March 06, 2016

Lawmakers agree on $75 million each in capital aid for traditional schools, charter schools

@ByKristenMClark

Florida's 650 charter schools and 3,600 traditional public schools would each get a pot of $75 million in state funds next year to spend on construction and maintenance projects, under a budget agreement the House and Senate appropriations chairmen announced Sunday afternoon.

The figure -- about the same as what Republican Gov. Rick Scott had asked for -- is $25 million more for each set of schools than lawmakers allocated this year.

It's also a compromise between Republican leaders in the House and Senate from what each chamber originally sought. In their budgets, both the House and Senate wanted to keep capital funding for traditional public schools level at $50 million. For charters, the House wanted $90 million, while the Senate budgeted nothing.

"From our perspective, it was kind of a guiding principle that we ought to be doing for the public system what we're doing for the charter school system, and we ultimately agreed on a level for funding both," Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said.

"The reality is we're up from last year," added House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

The equal funding level is a victory for charter school advocates, who lobbied to get at least as much in capital dollars as traditional schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. Unlike district-run schools, charter schools often lease their facilities, rather than build them.

In a statement this evening, the Florida Charter School Alliance, which represents more than 200,000 students, "thanks the Legislature for the increase of $25 million in dollars to fund the cost of school facilities."

Supporters of conventional public schools are likely to be somewhat disappointed, although they're set to get more money this year than last. They had urged lawmakers to make up for years of reduced funding, when state capital money to charter schools far outweighed what conventional schools received.

Continue reading "Lawmakers agree on $75 million each in capital aid for traditional schools, charter schools" »

March 04, 2016

Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise

Capture@ByKristenMClark

As rank-and-file senators grow more worried that a controversial teacher bonus program could be slipped into the annual budget for the second year in a row, Senate President Andy Gardiner said this evening he endorses that approach as a possible "appropriate" compromise with the House.

"It was in the implementing bill last year. I think it’s an issue that’s very important to the speaker-designate (Rep. Richard Corcoran), and it’s not a new issue," Gardiner, R-Orlando, said of the "Best & Brightest" program that awards bonuses to "highly effective" teachers based on their high school SAT/ACT scores.

"Maybe that’s the compromise -– where instead of codifying it in statute in Senate Bill 524, it’s a one-year implementation," Gardiner said, referencing a massive education bill that includes permanently extending the bonuses.

"I think that might be appropriate, but I’ll leave that to the chairs to see if they want to do that," he said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, are still negotiating the 2016-17 budget in conference committee.

To the frustration of some of his fellow senators (Republicans and Democrats), Lee said earlier this week he "absolutely would" consider extending the teacher bonuses for another year through implementing language -- which was how the program was enacted last year. Lee said Corcoran "deserves some deference" on his priorities, as the Senate does their's.

When asked whether the Senate should grant an up-or-down vote to the controversial policy, Gardiner told reporters: "If it’s in the budget, there will be a floor vote."

Continue reading "Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise" »

Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise

Capture@ByKristenMClark

As rank-and-file senators grow more worried that a controversial teacher bonus program could be slipped into the annual budget for the second year in a row, Senate President Andy Gardiner said this evening he endorses that approach as a possible "appropriate" compromise with the House.

"It was in the implementing bill last year. I think it’s an issue that’s very important to the speaker-designate (Rep. Richard Corcoran), and it’s not a new issue," Gardiner, R-Orlando, said of the "Best & Brightest" program that awards bonuses to "highly effective" teachers based on their high school SAT/ACT scores.

"Maybe that’s the compromise -– where instead of codifying it in statute in Senate Bill 524, it’s a one-year implementation," Gardiner said, referencing a massive education bill that includes permanently extending the bonuses.

"I think that might be appropriate, but I’ll leave that to the chairs to see if they want to do that," he said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, are still negotiating the 2016-17 budget in conference committee.

To the frustration of some of his fellow senators (Republicans and Democrats), Lee said earlier this week he "absolutely would" consider extending the teacher bonuses for another year through implementing language -- which was how the program was enacted last year. Lee said Corcoran "deserves some deference" on his priorities, as the Senate does their's.

When asked whether the Senate should grant an up-or-down vote to the controversial policy, Gardiner told reporters: "If it’s in the budget, there will be a floor vote."

Continue reading "Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise" »

Some senators urge push-back on deals with Florida House

@ByKristenMClark

As the Florida legislative session enters the home-stretch and Republican leaders in both chambers cut deals on key pieces of legislation, some senators are vocally disgruntled that they're being cut out of the process.

A frequent theme on the Senate floor the past couple of days has been push-back from members -- in both parties -- against agreements with the House, such as on fixing Florida's death penalty procedures or over expanding medical marijuana.

On those issues, in particular, some senators have sought amendments to the pending legislation, which were shot down after bill sponsors, in several cases, cited the House's support of the deal on the table.

"We don’t have to yield to the House in any way shape or form," Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, said Thursday during the death penalty debate.

"We don't have to capitulate to the House on this," Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said Friday during the medical marijuana debate.

A short while later on Friday, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, added: "The decisions shouldn't be made between two sponsors, two chairmen or two presiding officers."

The sentiment is resonating in other pending issues, too, such as the controversial "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus plan, which is a priority for the House but which many senators dislike.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Wednesday that he "absolutely would" consider extending the program a year through budget language, even if the Senate doesn't take up a bill that would permanently extend the program.

Lee said House leaders "deserve some deference" on their priority issues, but some Republican and Democratic senators disagree with Lee's position and don't want the Senate to cut a deal.

March 02, 2016

'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses face battle in Florida Senate

@ByKristenMClark

A controversial bonus plan that awards "highly effective" teachers based on their ACT/SAT scores faces a tough fight in the Florida Senate -- and that battle is bogging down a massive education bill that Sen. Don Gaetz wants to use as a vehicle to permanently extend the "Best & Brightest" bonuses.

Rank-and-file senators in both parties are, at least, reluctant or, at most, altogether opposed to the program. Echoing other critics, they argue it's not a fair way to reward teachers, since there's no proven correlation between teachers' high school test scores and their ability to be good teachers.

But Senate Republican leaders say they want to make a "good faith effort" to support "Best & Brightest" because it's a priority for House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican who's in line to become House Speaker in November.

"The process works best when we respect each chamber's priorities, as much as we respect our own," Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said this evening.

Gaetz's education bill (SB 524) that includes "Best & Brightest" -- among a dozen other policy proposals -- was scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor today, but dozens of amendments were added to it as late as this morning. Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, asked for his bill to be postponed so senators could digest the myriad proposed changes.

The bill could come back up again as early as Thursday as part of the Senate's "Special Order" calendar.

Among the proposed amendments to SB 524 are efforts by several senators to either strip the "Best & Brightest" bonuses entirely from the bill or, if that fails, significantly change the eligibility criteria, so that teachers could be awarded based on different benchmarks.

Continue reading "'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses face battle in Florida Senate" »

Senators try, fail to require unanimous jury decision on death-penalty cases; House compromise intact

@ByKristenMClark

Some senators this morning unsuccessfully tried to undo a political compromise with the Florida House that's intended to fix the state's death penalty sentencing procedures, in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision related to Florida's law.

Under the agreement, at least 10 of 12 jurors would have to agree to impose a death sentence, as opposed to having only a simple majority under today's law.

But several senators, led by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, urged the chamber to force the House's hand and stick to requiring a unanimous jury decision -- a policy the Senate Criminal Justice committee endorsed by a 5-0 vote earlier this session.

Clemens argued that the Senate shouldn't allow "one or two members" to negotiate with the House and bypass the committee process, where policies are supposed to be vetted.

"We don’t have to yield to the House in any way shape or form," agreed Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge. "If we don’t pass a bill, the death penalty goes away and I don’t think the House is going to let that happen, so why not send them the best product possible?"

Baker Republican Sen. Greg Evers -- who advocated for the compromise -- said: "The problem is there's two bodies in the Legislature."

"We knew that we had to do something. There had to be common ground," Evers said.

After lengthy debate, Clemens' amendment narrowly failed, first by an 18-22 vote. The vote was reconsidered a few minutes later, after Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said "some wrong buttons were inadvertently pushed.”

The amendment failed a second time by a 17-23 vote, with three Republican senators changing their votes.

Sen. Rene Garcia, of Miami, changed from "no" to "yes." Sens. Tom Lee,of Brandon, and David Simmons, of Altamonte Springs, changed from "yes" to "no."

The Senate will take up the House's bill on Thursday for a final vote.

Florida, in practice, doesn't currently have the death penalty because lawmakers have yet to fix the state's legal procedure for sentencing in those cases, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional.

In its narrow decision, the court ruled that juries, not judges, should be the ones to impose the death penalty. But lawmakers fear that by not requiring a super-majority or even a unanimous jury decision, the state leaves itself vulnerable to constitutional challenges.

Florida is the only state using capital punishment in which as few as seven of 12 jurors can recommend death.