March 10, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

@ByKristenMClark

With less than two days left in the 2016 session, lawmakers are furiously trying to pass policy bills through both chambers before the clock runs out. The Senate again starts daily work at 10 a.m., while the House convenes at noon.

Here's what we're watching today:

* The House and Senate will take questions on their 2016-17 budget proposal, in advance of Friday's expected vote.

* The Senate will take up two environmental bills. SB 1168 implements Amendment 1 (the land and water conservation amendment approved by voters in 2014) and establishes a dedicated funding source for Everglades restoration. The chamber will also take up SB 1290, giving state regulators more flexibility over state lands.

* Gov. Rick Scott must act on more than two dozen bills by today, including allowing disabled vets with identifying license plates to park for free at airports, and removing the term "absentee ballot" from the statutes and replacing it with the term "vote by mail ballot."

* The House could take up a massive education bill that the Senate passed Wednesday.

* The Senate is slated to consider a proposal to allow other standardized exams for K-12 public school students, like the SAT or Advanced Placement courses, as an alternative to the Florida Standards Assessments.

March 09, 2016

Law that helps Miami-Dade schools by fixing tax collection shortfalls heads to Gov. Scott

@ByKristenMClark and @cveiga

A proposed law that cleared the Florida Legislature on Wednesday should give local government entities -- such as Miami-Dade Public Schools -- faster access to their tax revenue and the ability to more accurately plan their annual budgets.

Officials with the Miami-Dade school district have, for years, complained that lengthy delays in tax collection short-change public schools by millions of dollars in funding.

And they finally have a solution that's a step away from becoming law.

HB 499 unanimously passed both the House and Senate on Wednesday and now awaits Republican Gov. Rick Scott's signature.

The measure -- led by Republicans Sen. Anitere Flores, of Miami, and Rep. Bryan Avila, of Hialeah -- reforms statewide the process for resolving property tax disputes, which are heard by county Value Adjustment Boards.

It puts limits on when property owners' appeals need to be resolved, and it requires the boards to complete all appeals and certify property values with the county appraiser no later than June 1.

Flores said the provisions "speed up and modernize that process, so hopefully entities such as our school system and our public school students will receive the money they deserve in a timely matter."

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and other district officials traveled to Tallahassee at least twice this session to testify in favor of the bill when it was vetted by legislative committees.

"We're finally going to have legislative protection that will ensure equity in funding for Miami-Dade's children," Carvalho said Wednesday in Miami.

Carvalho and school board chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman both said they were "appreciative" of Avila, Flores and the rest of the Miami-Dade delegation for navigating the bill through the legislative process. 

"This was a very big priority for the board," Hantman said. 

The district's fight over property tax appeals has been years-long and contentious.

The district audited the local value adjustment board, refused to pay a $1.5 million bill to the property appraiser and threatened to sue over the issue. United Teachers of Dade, the local union, did sue -- but a judge dismissed the complaint.

Carvalho said the district will now pay close attention to how the bill is implemented in Miami-Dade.

"Everything is in place to solve the problem. With every law that's passed in Tallahassee, it is about the execution. And fidelity as far as execution will be key," Carvalho said.

Cohabitation could soon be legal again in Florida, as Legislature sends repeal to governor

@ByKristenMClark

Florida lawmakers signed off on legislation Wednesday to repeal a 148-year-old law that prohibits unmarried couples from living together.

The Florida House passed the cohabitation repeal bill (SB 498) by a 112-5 vote, sending it to Republican Gov. Rick Scott for his signature. The Senate passed the bill last week unanimously.

Lawmakers have tried in previous years to repeal the law but have been unsuccessful.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Democratic Reps. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, of Tallahassee, and Richard Stark, of Weston, led the charge this year.

The Five Republicans who opposed it on the House floor were: Reps. Janet Adkins of Fernandina Beach, Brad Drake of Eucheeanna, Mike Hill of Pensacola Beach, Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora and Charles Van Zant of Keystone Heights.

Shortly after the vote, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, changed his vote to "no" also, but that doesn't count in the official vote tally.

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" »