March 04, 2016

Some senators urge push-back on deals with Florida House


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


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.

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


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.

March 01, 2016

Miami-Dade superintendent: Coding and foreign language are not interchangeable

Carvalho head to waist shot@ByKristenMClark & @MaryEllenKlas

The top administrator of Florida's largest school district -- and the fourth largest school district in the country -- remains opposed to a legislative proposal that would let high school students count computer coding as a foreign language.

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said again Tuesday that lawmakers should not equate the two, and he said he fears for the implications the policy decision could have on students' future opportunities -- such as their ability to apply for scholarships, college or even competitive jobs in a global workforce.

"We all value the importance of computer science and coding. We all value the importance of foreign language. We just don't believe they're interchangeable," Carvalho told the Herald/Times, while he was back in Tallahassee today to testify on a different bill.

The computer coding proposal easily passed the Florida Senate last week. A similar measure awaits consideration on the House floor.

Margate Democratic Sen. Jeremy Ring, a former Yahoo executive, has spearhead the legislation. He argues that technology is a "basic skill" students need to have and that allowing computer coding as a foreign language would better prepare students for high-demand careers.

On the Senate floor, Ring said he believed a person who knows computer coding is "bilingual."

But the proposal has many opponents, ranging from civil rights organizations to some school and district administrators, like Carvalho.

"If you're going to consider computer science as a language -- a foreign language, not just a language -- why not consider music? You can write it, you can read it, it's been around for millenia, right?" Carvalho quipped. "They're different forms of communication and expression, but they're not interchangeable."

Continue reading "Miami-Dade superintendent: Coding and foreign language are not interchangeable" »

February 29, 2016

NAACP, other groups blast computer-coding proposal as 'misleading and mischievous'


Organizations that represent black and Hispanic Floridians released a joint statement Monday declaring their opposition to legislation that would let high school students count computer coding as a foreign language class.

The measure passed the Senate, 35-5, last week, and its companion bill awaits consideration on the House floor.

The groups who joined in Monday's statement were the NAACP's Florida Conference and Miami-Dade branch, the Florida chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Spanish American League Against Discrimination (SALAD).

"Our children need skills in both technology and in foreign languages to compete in today's global economy," the joint statement reads. "However, to define coding and computer science as a foreign language is a misleading and mischievous misnomer that deceives our students, jeopardizes their eligibility to admission to universities, and will result in many losing out on the foreign language skills they desperately need even for entry-level jobs in South Florida.

"We stand with Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, educators, parents, the (Florida Education Association) and (United Teachers of Dade), and other advocacy organizations in asking our legislators to vote NO on HB 887."

Read the full statement here.

The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, and Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate. Ring is a former Yahoo executive, who has spearheaded the measure as a means to better prepare today's students for in-demand careers in the technology sector.

On the Senate floor last week, Ring said he believed a person who knows computer coding is "bilingual."

'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."

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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" »