February 19, 2016

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

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@ByKristenMClark

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

@ByKristenMClark

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.

February 18, 2016

'Recess moms' plea for bill to be heard, but Senator Legg says he won't change his mind

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UPDATE: 3:15 p.m.

The House passed its recess bill with strong bipartisan support on a 112-2 vote. Only Republican Reps. Richard Corcoran, of Land O'Lakes, and Michael Bileca, of Miami, opposed it.

ORIGINAL POST:

@ByKristenMClark

Passionate mothers, who affectionately call themselves "recess moms," are imploring Florida Senate leaders to take up a bill that would require elementary schools to offer 20 minutes of recess each school day.

The legislation is on track to be approved by the Florida House this afternoon, but it has stalled in the Senate and is all-but-dead for the 2016 session.

"This bill simply can't die; our children are too important," said Amy Narvaez, an Orange County parent. "We don't live in Neverland. Our children grow up too fast and we can't wait another year for this to be fixed."

Several "recess moms" -- from mostly Central Florida and the Tampa Bay region -- organized a press conference this morning at the Capitol, and they were joined by a bipartisan group of a dozen House members, including Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, one of the lead sponsors of that chamber's bill.

Lawmakers and parents have cited numerous benefits associated with unrestricted free time for children — including the ability for students to be creative and get a reprieve from a packed schedule of lessons.

"We want our children to develop their social skills, and social skills are developed by allowing them to do whatever they want to do in their free time," Cortes said. "This is a good bill. This is for our children."

"This is like a no-brainer from a kid's point of view," Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, said. "They're kids and they're under so much stress; they need some recreation. It's important that all school districts give these kids a break."

The Senate bill hasn't gotten its first hearing before the Pre-K-12 Education Committee. Chairman John Legg, a Republican senator from Trinity, told the Tampa Bay Times last week that he won't take it up, and he told the Herald/Times this morning that he doesn't intend to change his mind.

"There's too much impact on kids and our school districts need the flexibility," Legg said today, calling it a "local issue."

But parents argue they've pleaded with local school district leaders to mandate recess and have been ignored.

They cite varying rules across Florida's 67 county school districts and want a consistent policy statewide. They said they don't want to wait another year for lawmakers to take action. 

It's been Senate President Andy Gardiner's policy to let committee chairmen decide which bills will be heard in committee. The Orlando Republican supports the recess bill, but also supports Legg's prerogative to hear it, Gardiner spokeswoman Katie Betta said.

The House version -- HB 833, sponsored by Cortes and Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando -- earned swift and unanimous favor in three committees since first being heard in late January.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers at today's press conference called on Legg to allow the bill to be heard and voted on.

"Recess is critically important to children. It is something we need to consider and pass," said House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, of West Palm Beach. "And I would certainly hope that Senator Legg really takes time to consider allowing this to move forward in the Senate."

"Recess is fun, and our kids deserve to have fun," Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, said. "If we want our kids to learn and grow and to do well academically going forward, they have to have this time outside to clear their minds and get ready for the rest of the day."

Photo credit: Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, begins a press conference with "recess moms" and Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the Florida Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Kristen M. Clark /Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

February 17, 2016

Proposed reforms to Florida's 'stand your ground' law revived with House referral

@ByKristenMClark

Potential changes to the state's "stand your ground" law were resuscitated in the Florida House this past week, despite the original measure stalling in a subcommittee last fall.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, referred the Senate-approved bill to the House Judiciary Committee, which gives the chamber a second chance at considering the policy this session.

"It's a fair discussion to have," Crisafulli told reporters after Wednesday's session. "If they pass it, they pass it. If they don't, they don't."

Jacksonville Republican Rep. Charles McBurney, the House judiciary chairman, has the prerogative to hear the bill -- SB 344, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

McBurney told the Herald/Times Wednesday evening that "no decision has been made" on which bills might be taken up after the committee's hearing Thursday morning.

Bradley's bill is not on that agenda. The committee has at least one more hearing scheduled (for next week), but McBurney said the agenda hasn't been set.

Judiciary is the only committee Bradley's bill was referred to in the House, so if it's heard and passes, the bill would go straight to the House floor for a final vote.

House Democrats are annoyed that the "stand your ground" reforms are back in play, because their success at killing the House bill -- by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala -- was a rare victory for them in the Republican-led Legislature. It was also an unusual defeat for a priority of the National Rifle Association.

"When I learned of it, I went to the chairman of judiciary, and I said, 'Even when I win, I lose,' " said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, who led the opposition that led to a deadlocked vote on Baxley's bill.

Because it failed to advance out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, the House members on that panel effectively killed Baxley's version.

"It's now back from the Senate. I think there's some procedural pitfalls in doing that," Kerner said. "We have a process and the bill died by a bipartisan vote, and the fact that it's back is very unfortunate and we're working to kill it again."

In order for proposals to become law, identical bills have to pass out of the House and Senate. Traditionally, in the Florida Legislature, separate bills are filed and advanced separately through each chamber.

After Baxley's bill died, Bradley's version continued progressing through legislative committees in the Senate, and senators passed it by a 24-12 vote in late January.

Crisafulli noted that the House judiciary panel was among the committees that Baxley's bill "would have gone to, had it not died over here."

Both bills shift the burden of proof in self-defense cases, requiring prosecutors to prove why a defendant could not claim the state's "stand your ground" law as a defense for their actions. The law, adopted in 2005, allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property in certain circumstances, with no obligation to retreat or flee.

Republican lawmakers offered bills this session in response to a Florida Supreme Court ruling last summer that stated defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity. Bradley contended the justices “misinterpreted legislative intent” of the decade-old law.

Bradley's bill was amended in the Senate, so prosecutors would be subject to a lesser burden of proof than what the original bills proposed.

Prior to the Senate vote, Democrats in that chamber railed against Bradley's bill, arguing it would “stack the deck against justice for the dead,” especially for victims who are minorities.

League: Plan for state charter school authorizer is 'an egregious attack on public schools'

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida League of Women Voters and advocates for traditional public schools lambasted Republican state lawmakers today for proposing and considering a constitutional amendment that would set up a state-appointed board with the power to "authorize, operate, control, and supervise" charter schools across Florida.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. School districts currently have the ability to authorize new charter schools based on criteria set forth in state law.

But some school districts have tried to push back on the proliferation of charter schools in a way that Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, has said violates those rules and injects subjectivity into what is supposed to be a black-and-white approval process. 

He and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, are proposing the change to Florida's Constitution to give charter school applicants an alternate authority from which to get the needed approval. (More here).

They have said it wouldn't reduce local power, but critics -- including the league -- disagree.

"It would be a major change to the Florida Constitution, disregarding school districts' authority," league President Pamela Goodman said, during a league rally on the steps of the Old Capitol in Tallahassee.

"It's another example of the continued push to privatize public schools and establish a parallel system that diverts money to for-profit corporations," Goodman said, calling it an "egregious attack on public schools."

Diaz, a proponent of charter schools, told the Herald/Times in a text message that "it's unfortunate they (the league) spend time and energy trying to limit educational choices for parents and students across the state."

"Charter schools are public schools and they should be one of the many choices students in our state have," he said.

Diaz's version (HJR 759) is ready for consideration on the House floor, while Stargel's measure in the Senate (SJR 976) has stalled in committee.

Her bill was supposed to be heard in late January by the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee, but it was postponed and hasn't been scheduled for consideration again since. The committee has not met for two weeks and it's unclear whether it will have another meeting this session. Committee Chairman John Legg, a Republican senator from Trinity, did not return a message seeking comment.

The Legislature 10 years ago tried to create a state-authorizing body for charter schools but it was struck down in the courts. Diaz's and Stargel's bills would send to voters a constitutional amendment to codify the charter school authorizer in the Florida Constitution.

Constitutional amendments must be approved by three-fifths of both the House and Senate: 72 members in the House and 24 in the Senate. Then, the proposal must get 60-percent approval from voters in order to change the Constitution.

The league was joined at their rally by Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, but he left the steps prior to the league's discussion of the proposed charter school amendment. (More here on his appearance in Tallahassee.)

Rep. Fresen's school capital funding reform bill ready for Florida House floor

@ByKristenMClark

After more debate, a contentious plan to reform how traditional public schools and charter schools get money for capital costs -- and how they can use those dollars -- is on its way to the Florida House floor for consideration.

The House Education Committee advanced the proposal by Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen on Wednesday morning by a 13-4 vote. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, joined Republicans in support, while the rest of the panel's Democrats opposed it.

It was the second and final hearing for Fresen's proposal since it was amended onto a related education bill last week by the House Appropriations Committee.

Fresen's proposal (in HB 873) is two-fold. Primarily, it calls for reining in school districts' spending on capital costs, by holding all available revenues -- including locally raised dollars -- to a state cap on what it costs to build the space for each student. Fresen has presented data showing what he calls excessive cost-overruns by districts in the past 10 years, findings that superintendents argue are too simplistic.

"If, at whatever point, the locals are not dealing with that, we need to create a system where that doesn’t happen anymore," Fresen said.

The more controversial part of the proposal would force districts to share some of their local tax revenue with charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

Fresen said his goal is equitable funding for charter schools and he's offering "a formula that’s blind to politics."

Continue reading "Rep. Fresen's school capital funding reform bill ready for Florida House floor" »

February 16, 2016

Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade school board members advocate for district priorities in Tallahassee

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@ByKristenMClark

Six Miami-Dade County School Board members and district Superintendent Alberto Carvalho are in Tallahassee today, meeting with local lawmakers and testifying on some bills that had hearings before legislative committees.

Carvalho also met with Republican Gov. Rick Scott this afternoon, which Carvalho said earlier today would be a routine affair that's "just one more opportunity to re-state our priorities."

He said those include equity in funding (including capital dollars), the state's education accountability system and an emphasis on students learning the English language, among other topics.

Funding for school districts' capital dollars has been a controversial and prominent topic recently. Lawmakers in both chambers are set to begin negotiations this week on the next state budget, where they'll compromise on how much in capital dollars school districts and privately managed charter schools should get. This comes as lawmakers are considering a proposal spearheaded by Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen that would require school districts to give to charter schools some of their state funding for maintenance and repairs.

Carvalho told the Herald/Times that changing the funding formula for school districts and how they use local and state tax dollars "could be rather devastating to the financial stability of our district long-term," and in the short term, he said, it could be "rather impactful or catastrophic in terms of our maintenance needs and everyday construction renovation needs."

Continue reading "Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade school board members advocate for district priorities in Tallahassee" »

Florida League of Women Voters, with guest U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, to speak against lawmakers' plan for a state charter authorizer

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida League of Women Voters announced today that Florida Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson will join the group at a press conference Wednesday where members of the league will discuss what they describe as an "egregious constitutional amendment" proposed by Republican state lawmakers that would set up a statewide charter school district.

In a revised press release, the league later clarified that Nelson "will speak in support of the league's hard work registering voters, as well as efforts at fairness during reapportionment and Amendment 1 issues," while league President Pamela Goodman and "educational organizations" will focus their comments on the charter school issue.

The event begins at 11:30 a.m. on the steps of the Old Capitol in downtown Tallahassee.

Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, have proposed creating a statewide board that would "authorize, operate, control, and supervise" charter schools across Florida.

The House is expected to vote on its version (HJR 759) this week, while the Senate version (SJR 976) has stalled in committee. (Stargel's bill was supposed to be heard in late January by the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee, but was temporarily postponed and hasn't been scheduled for consideration again since.)

Diaz has said the bill wouldn't remove local school boards' power to authorize charter schools, but public school officials fear it would because private entities aiming to set up charter schools could circumvent local board approval by submitting applications directly to the state.

The Legislature 10 years ago tried to create a state-authorizing body for charter schools but it was struck down in the courts. Diaz's and Stargel's bills would send to voters a constitutional amendment to codify the charter school authorizer in the Florida Constitution.

Constitutional amendments must be approved by three-fifths of both the House and Senate: 72 members in the House and 24 in the Senate. Then, the proposal must get 60-percent approval from voters in order to change the Constitution.

February 14, 2016

Miami lawmaker's ties to charter schools prompt lingering questions

@cveiga and @ByKristenMClark

A familiar face is back at the center of a perennial tug-of-war in the Florida Legislature between privately-managed charter schools and district-run public schools over taxpayer money for construction projects:

Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who controls the purse for education funding in the Florida House. His connections to the charter school industry continue to raise questions about conflicts of interest.

He has fast-tracked a mid-session bill that would limit school district spending on capital needs. It would also force districts to share their construction tax money with charters.

Fresen is a $150,000-a-year land consultant for Civica, an architecture firm with a specialty in building charter schools. Many of those schools were built for Academica — which has been described as the largest charter school management company in Florida and which counts Fresen’s brother-in-law and sister as executives.

Fresen says he simply wants to hold districts accountable for the money they spend and ensure equitable funding for charter schools, which are classified as public schools.

“Nothing in this bill has anything to do with anything that I do for a living,” he said.

But Fresen, 39, is dogged by questions that his goal isn’t so well-intentioned.

More here.

February 10, 2016

Gov. Rick Scott solicits support for tech center grant funding

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@ByKristenMClark

Trying to get Florida lawmakers' support for one of his more lesser-profile priorities, Republican Gov. Rick Scott rallied in the Capitol rotunda this morning to raise awareness for his call to invest $20 million in a grant program that would help students at the state's 48 post-secondary technical centers.

Flanked by students, center administrators and other supporters, Scott said: "This is part of making sure that you get the right things passed during session, that the right things are in the budget."

"You have to be here to make sure your legislators know what's important to you," Scott told the crowd, noting his proposed Technical Center Rapid Response Grant Program is "important to people who want jobs around our state."

Scott included the $20 million for the new program in his proposed budget to lawmakers. Education budget leaders in both the House and Senate have said they are open to discussing it but aren't committing to Scott's specific recommendation.

The House included $10 million toward the program in its budget plan, said Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, the House's education budget committee chairman.

Senate education budget Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, mentioned the full $20 million in funding when he gave his initial budget presentation in late January, noting that "how that will be defined will be the subject of" future committee work in the Senate.

Both the House and Senate will discuss their full budget proposals on the chamber floors today and Thursday.

It's not common practice for Scott to lobby lawmakers directly or hold rallies to drum up support for his priorities. In the past couple months, though, he's appeared before House and Senate committees to argue for his tax-cut package, and last week, he held another Capitol rally to promote his call for $1 billion in tax cuts and $250 million in business incentives.

The "rapid response" grants are one of at least a handful of priorities that lawmakers either have rejected, questioned or are offering counter proposals for during the 2016 session. Among those topics: the proposed tax cuts, the business incentives for Enterprise Florida, the Seminole gaming compact, and his funding plan to increase to K-12 education funding using mostly local property tax revenue. 

In line with his ongoing goal to get Florida students employed, Scott's budget proposal called for the Department of Education to set up the "rapid response" grants to help expand or develop post-secondary programs "in high-demand areas." The state's tech centers served more than 230,000 students in 2014-15.

"I've never met anybody in the state who's interested in going on unemployment. They all want jobs," Scott said. "It's our job to create an environment where they can get the best jobs possible."