February 29, 2016

'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses might be continued through budget language


As legislation to make permanent the "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program remains in limbo this session, Florida House and Senate leaders are floating the possibility of a one-year extension by including the program -- once again -- in proviso language for the annual budget.

The controversial program predictably surfaced as a point of leverage between House and Senate education leaders this weekend as they started hashing out the 2016-17 budget.

The bonuses are a priority for House Republicans, but senators in both parties are especially reluctant to buy in to the idea.

By Sunday evening, lead education budget negotiators Rep. Erik Fresen and Sen. Don Gaetz had agreed on the largest budget issue: how to fund increases to K-12 schools and by how much.

But the rest of the education budget remains unresolved.

The House rejected the first and only offer from the Senate, which included -- among a host of issues -- a proposed compromise on funding for the "Best and Brightest" program. The bonuses award "highly effective" teachers who scored in the top 20 percent on their high school SAT/ACT exams.

The offer from Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, was a broad this-for-that exchange of several priority areas, which was presented as "all or nothing" to the House.

Under Gaetz's offer, the Senate would have supported the House's desire to include the teacher bonus plan in the budget implementing bill -- allowing it to continue for a second year. The Senate would have also supported $22.5 million in funding, half the amount the House wants.

Continue reading "'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses might be continued through budget language" »

February 27, 2016

House, Senate close to deal on K-12 funding that avoids hike on local tax dollars

Gaetz and fresen


Legislative leaders were close to hashing out a deal Saturday evening to provide record-level K-12 education funding next school year -- without forcing businesses and homeowners to shoulder hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funding through local property taxes.

The proposal is a gesture of significant compromise by the Florida House.

But by using a greater share of state dollars instead, the $458 million proposed increase for 2016-17 is far less than what Republican Gov. Rick Scott or House or Senate leaders had originally sought.

Scott's recommendation to the Legislature was for a $507 million increase, almost 90 percent of which would have come from property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay.

By comparison, the House had originally proposed a $601 million increase, while the Senate wanted $650 million extra.

Both initial legislative budget plans mirrored Scott's funding formula, but Senate leaders have, for weeks, argued that increasing K-12 funding through the "required local effort" -- as Scott proposed -- would constitute a "tax increase."

Scott and some House members disagreed with that assertion, arguing that the tax rate wouldn't have changed. Even so, property tax bills would've gone up because property values have rebounded statewide.

On Saturday, House members -- led by education budget conference committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen -- shifted their tone.

"There was obviously a lot of concern by members of both parties as to how those funds were distributed," the Miami Republican said.

After re-analyzing their budget allocations, Fresen said he and committee Vice-Chairman Sen. Don Gaetz "made the policy decision overall to apply more general revenue ... (and) apply less of what could be considered -- whether construed properly or not -- as a property tax increase."

Continue reading "House, Senate close to deal on K-12 funding that avoids hike on local tax dollars" »

February 26, 2016

No, Florida Legislative Black Caucus didn't cut a deal to support incentives, chairman says


Not everything in Tallahassee politics happens because of ulterior motives or politicians' scratching each other's backs.

But the existence of a back-room deal was exactly the conclusion drawn by some in the Florida Capitol this week, when 19 House Democrats in the Florida Legislative Black Caucus voted in favor of an economic incentives bill that's a priority for Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

The members' support and that of six other Democrats was crucial for Republicans to pass the measure, 79-39, because 27 Republicans and 12 Democrats opposed it.

It's rare that Democrats hold so much sway in the chamber, which has 81 Republicans and 39 Democrats.

Surely -- the rumors swirled -- the black caucus must have planned to vote together and gotten something in return for crossing party lines en masse?


"It's not true," said Tampa Democratic Rep. Ed Narain, the caucus' chairman.

Narain told the Herald/Times that speculation and media reports alleging a "deal" had been struck between Republican leaders and members of the black caucus have confused and dramatized what really happened during and after this week's floor sessions in the House.

"There was no quid pro quo. The Speaker doesn’t operate like that; I don’t operate like that," Narain said.

What actually happened, Narain said:

Continue reading "No, Florida Legislative Black Caucus didn't cut a deal to support incentives, chairman says" »

February 25, 2016

Florida House, Senate 'optimistic' budget conferences could start this weekend


Florida House and Senate leaders are either more in sync than Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee let on just four hours ago, or he and House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran had some very productive discussions in a short period of time.

In a joint email to the state's 160 lawmakers at around 9:15 this evening, Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said they are "pleased with the progress" made by Lee, R-Brandon, and Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

"(We) are optimistic we will be ready to begin the budget conference this weekend," Gardiner and Crisafulli wrote. "We will update you as early as possible tomorrow, so you can make the appropriate travel arrangements."

At the close of yesterday's session, Gardiner had advised Senate appropriations members to stick around, in case budget meetings started this weekend.

But after a seven-hour Senate Appropriations Committee meeting today, Lee indicated not much progress had been made in the past 24 hours. He told reporters earlier this evening that he "hadn't really talked" to Corcoran all day, but that they'd planned to speak this evening.

House and Senate leaders have yet to release budget allocations, the next big step in the process. They need to shore up a budget no later than March 8, in order for lawmakers to vote on one before session is scheduled to end March 11.

February 24, 2016

Best & Brightest, charter school funding reforms have new pathway in Florida Senate


Some of the most controversial education measures being discussed during the 2016 legislative session could have a new vehicle for passage in the Florida Senate, indicating a possible deal between House and Senate leaders to get these proposals through before session ends in two weeks.

Senate education budget committee Chairman Don Gaetz, a Republican senator from Niceville, is offering a sweeping amendment to SB 524 -- which the full Senate Appropriations Committee is due to consider on Thursday.

If the committee accepts the amendment and passes Gaetz's bill, it goes straight to the Senate floor from there. Gaetz was in committee this morning and not immediately available for comment.

The 3-page bill, as-is, deals narrowly with state university performance funding. But Gaetz has filed a strike-all amendment replacing the bill with a 59-page proposal that also deals with topics such as:

-- extending the controversial "Best and Brightest" bonus program for K-12 teachers;

-- reforming the funding formula for how charter schools receive capital dollars for maintenance and construction projects and how much school districts can spend on such projects;

-- enacting a "Principal Autonomy Pilot Program" in Broward, Duval, Escambia, Jefferson, Madison, Palm Beach, Pinellas, and Seminole counties to give principals more say in the governance of their public schools;

-- enacting a "competency-based education" pilot program for public schools in Lake, Palm Beach, Pinellas, and Seminole counties, among others that would qualify;

-- enacting performance funding for Florida's state college system and a program to recognize high-performing colleges.

-- and, revising and expanding the "preeminence" program for state research universities.

Several of these measures exist in other bills -- some of which, on their own, are having a hard time passing the Senate.

Continue reading "Best & Brightest, charter school funding reforms have new pathway in Florida Senate" »

February 23, 2016

Despite chance at revival, changes to Florida's "stand your ground" law won't be heard again


Revived efforts to change Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law are once again presumed dead for the 2016 session.

The "Hail Mary" pass for the legislation hinged on a Senate-approved bill getting consideration Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee. But the bill is not listed on the committee's agenda, which was released this afternoon.

The meeting is the panel's last scheduled gathering of the 2016 session.

Jacksonville Republican Rep. Charles McBurney, the House judiciary chairman, did not immediately return a voicemail seeking comment on why he chose not to take up the bill -- SB 344, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

Opponents -- including victims' family members, state attorneys and Democratic lawmakers -- had been mobilizing this week to kill SB 344, as they did the original House version, which stalled in the criminal justice committee last fall.

"We spent most of the floor session today -- some of my colleagues and I -- working the bill and it looked like we had the votes to kill it, quite frankly," Rep. David Kerner, D-Lake Worth, told the Herald/Times this afternoon.

Kerner -- who has led the opposition to gun bills under consideration this session -- said he kept McBurney informed of his efforts and "didn't ask him to do anything specific; I just wanted him to know where a lot of the members were on the committee."

The bill not being put on the agenda "could mean there wasn't support for the bill or leadership made a decision not to find out," Kerner said. "But whatever it is, it's a win for a lot of people. It's a win for victims, it's a win for prosecutors trying to do their job and it's a win for the community that just wants to be kept safe."

It's not a win for the National Rifle Association, which lobbied for the bill.

Continue reading "Despite chance at revival, changes to Florida's "stand your ground" law won't be heard again" »

Computer-coding proposal ready for Florida Senate vote on Wednesday


Florida senators are poised to vote on a bill Wednesday afternoon that will allow high school students to count computer-coding courses as foreign language credits, despite opposition from critics who argue the two shouldn't be considered one and the same.

Amendments added to Sen. Jeremy Ring's bill (SB 468) on Tuesday aimed to sync up the Senate version with a similar-but-broader proposal (HB 887) that's also ready for floor action in the House.

The changes remove the requirement that public schools "must provide" computer coding and, instead, steers that responsibility to Florida Virtual School.

"If a school district does not offer (the computer coding course), it may provide students access to the course through the Florida Virtual School or through other means," reads the second of two approved amendments that were sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, originally sought but then withdrew an amendment that would have made related industry certifications in computer coding count toward math -- not foreign language -- requirements. Clemens said he appreciated the intent of Ring's proposal but disagrees that computer coding is -- as Ring argues -- a language, rather than a computer science.

Clemens challenged Ring by asking whether someone who learns computer coding is bilingual.

"In my mind, I think yeah," said Ring, a Democrat from Margate and a former Yahoo executive. "I do believe there's a bilingual aspect to that."

Ring said computer coding is more aligned with the liberal arts rather than computer science. He argues computer coding is a universal language that helps prepare students for careers in high-demand STEM careers.

"Whatever profession we choose ... if you don't have certain technology skills, you will be left behind. It's a basic skill," Ring said.

Continue reading "Computer-coding proposal ready for Florida Senate vote on Wednesday" »

February 19, 2016

High school athletics reforms ready for Florida House, Senate floors


A package of bills affecting more than 285,000 high school student-athletes and the statewide governing body that oversees them are ready for consideration on the Florida House and Senate floors.

Bills in both chambers have easily cleared all necessary committees -- the Senate versions of which were approved Thursday by their last committee of reference with no questions or debate.

But it's unclear yet what kind of compromise might be reached by lawmakers to allow them to become law. Identical bills have to pass out of both chambers in order to be sent to the governor's desk, and there are differences among all of the bills.

The more basic pair of bills -- SB 1026/HB 31 by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover -- deal more narrowly with the Florida High School Athletic Association's governing authority. The measures allow member high schools to join on a per-sport basis.

Spano's version still requires the non-profit FHSAA to collect no more in fees or contest receipts than it needs to put on events; that provision was removed from Simmons' bill.

Simmons' version also would codify the process the FHSAA has to follow when investigating disputes over a student's eligibility.

The more comprehensive bills (SB 684 / HB 7039) are similar in intent but diverge in the details. Both include harsher penalties for recruiting and seek to let student-athletes keep their athletic eligibility when transferring schools during the same school year.

The FHSAA has specifically opposed the House version -- sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah -- over fears that it could “open the door to recruiting and free agency” of student-athletes.

If a student is home-schooled or their school doesn’t offer a particular sport, Diaz’s proposal would let that student choose any school in their district that offered that sport. The FHSAA argued in January that students should be limited to their home-zoned area, not given whatever option they want.

Diaz's bill has been on the chamber's second-reading calendar since early January and hasn't been taken up yet on the floor.

The Senate version, which unanimously passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, is more comprehensive. The bill -- sponsored by Republican Sens. Kelli Stargel, of Lakeland, and Don Gaetz, of Niceville -- includes the per-sport provision for FHSAA member schools, the immediate eligibility for student-athlete transfers and the recruiting penalties.

But more broadly, it also includes an open-enrollment provision, allowing any child to attend any school in the state that has space available.

House members passed a bill Thursday that allows the same policy. Like that House bill, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, has a related proposal that includes open enrollment but doesn't address high school athletics. It still needs to be heard by the Senate budget committee.

Jack Latvala says Don Gaetz is hypocritical for attacking Miguel Diaz de la Portilla



So much for peace among Republicans in the Florida Senate this session.

After Sen. Don Gaetz issued a statement last night blasting fellow Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla for killing his open-carry bill, another Republican senator today is accusing Gaetz of being a hypocrite.

"When Don Gaetz was Senate president and throughout my time serving with him, he has never hesitated to use whatever procedural options were open to stifle the will of anyone else in the Senate," Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said today.

He cited a couple of instances during Gaetz's presidency from 2012-2014 when he said he felt the Niceville Republican used his power as president to halt the progress of Latvala's own priorities.

"For him to be talking about one senator stifling the will of the Senate, he needs to make sure he has clean hands," Latvala said.

Latvala and Gaetz are not ones to mince words about each other and they have a history of showing publicly their dislike for one another. During the special session on Senate redistricting last fall, Gaetz rose for a 17-minute tirade on the Senate floor in which he called Latvala a "bully" and criticized him for being critical of Senate leadership.

Latvala retorted to Gaetz shortly after, but those wounds clearly haven't healed.

"This is a perfect example of him doing the same thing to somebody else, and I’m just tired of it," Latvala said today. "Senator Gaetz is used to having his way, and he didn’t get his way this time. It’s unfortunate for him to put out a statement about another senator like that, and I’m just sick of it."

Gaetz today declined to respond to Latvala's comments.

His controversial legislation would have allowed 1.5 million people with concealed-weapons permits in Florida to openly carry handguns.

Earlier this month, the Republican-heavy House easily passed its version -- sponsored by Gaetz's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- but Don Gaetz's companion bill stalled in the Senate in front of Diaz de la Portilla's Judiciary Committee.

The Miami Republican announced Tuesday he won't take up the bill, which prompted Don Gaetz's statement Thursday evening. Gaetz accused Diaz de la Portilla of "fearing the debate" over open carry, "stretching" his authority as a committee chairman and of "promising and then reneging" on plans to find a compromise on the legislation.

Diaz de la Portilla stands by his decision. He said Thursday he couldn't see a workable solution for something he called "such lousy public policy and so dangerous for the state of Florida." He also said Gaetz was "disingenuous" to criticize him for exercising his authority as a committee chairman. (Gaetz himself is currently in charge of the education budget committee.)

Latvala also said today that he doesn't think Gaetz really had the votes to pass his open-carry bill, which Gaetz maintains he does.

The Republican majority isn't as large in the Senate, where there are 26 Republicans and 14 Democrats. Twenty-one votes are needed to pass a bill.

Latvala said he's among the senators who had reservations about open carry and "probably would've voted against it" if it came to the floor.

He said open carry isn't a constitutional issue, as the Gaetzes have proclaimed. Latvala said he sees the motive as more political and described it as something to help the National Rifle Association "gin up their numbers and to keep their members involved."

"Nobody’s trying to take anybody’s rights away from them," Latvala said.

Photo credit: Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, speaks on the Senate floor in 2014. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

Education bills - including charter schools, open enrollment measures - pass Florida House


An assortment of education measures — several with significant effects on Florida’s public education system — easily passed the state House on Thursday, mostly along party lines.

The approved bills, deemed priorities for the Florida House, include one that would allow parents to send their children to any public school in the state that has space available, and another that imposes more financial transparency requirements on charter schools in exchange for making it easier for “high performing” and “high impact” charter schools to set up shop and expand in Florida.

Those measures, in particular, drew considerable debate this week, as Democrats renewed arguments that Republicans neglect conventional public schools in favor of charter schools, which are run by private companies that receive taxpayer funding.

“Boy, they’re getting a lot of attention,” House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, of West Palm Beach, said of the state’s 650 charter schools that serve about 250,000 children statewide. By comparison, about 2.4 million children go to 3,600 conventional public schools.

Republican lawmakers repeatedly emphasized their goal to “empower” parents and children with “choice” and “opportunity.” Several also chastised Democrats on Thursday for being stuck in the past and for not focusing on “the kids” in their arguments, which questioned the rationale, logistics and cost of Republicans’ policies.

“We have to break the chains of the prison guards of the past, who want to preserve what was,” Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said.