February 09, 2016

Computer coding proposal keeps moving through Florida Legislature

@ByKristenMClark

Plans to require public high schools to provide computer-coding courses and let students count them toward foreign language credits continue to easily advance through the Florida Legislature.

The Senate version -- led by former Yahoo executive and current state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate -- is ready for consideration on the chamber's floor, and the House version passed its second of three committees on Tuesday.

The bill by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, was amended by the House education budget committee to include a $79,000-paid position at the Department of Education to "fund the bill."

Her version includes a provision directing the Higher Education Coordinating Council to develop recommendations for student success in post-secondary education and careers in computer science, information technology and related fields. A staff analysis of the bill recommended appropriating funds for a "program specialist" to support that directive.

Ring's version includes no such appropriation, as his bill is more narrowly tailored.

He's previously said the proposal would impose no costs, despite concerns raised by other lawmakers that it would require schools to hire teachers with specialty expertise, as well as provide enough computers to meet students' demand when many schools are already strapped for technology resources.

The bill's supporters include tech businesses, the Florida PTA, the Miami-Dade County Council of PTA/PTSA and Charter Schools USA.

Florida's public colleges and universities would be required to recognize students' computer-coding credits toward foreign language requirements.

Ring's version was changed last week to take effect in the 2018-19 school year and to include a provision requiring students and parents to sign a statement "acknowledging and accepting that taking a computer coding course as a foreign language may not meet out-of-state college and university foreign language requirements."

Adkins' bill requires districts to provide an advisory to students and parents, but there's no requirement of a signed statement. Her bill also requires Florida Virtual School to offer coding courses and for districts to give students access to the virtual school if local schools can't provide the course.

Florida Strong launches ad attacking lawmakers' special interests

@ByKristenMClark

The independent advocacy organization Florida Strong is going after state lawmakers for receiving campaign money from special interests before the 2016 session.

The group debuted a new web ad, called "Agenda," which it said it plans to run on social media and on state news websites. The ad cites data reported by the Herald/Times last month in an article that found special interests gave Florida legislative campaigns more than $28 million in the six months leading up to the start of session.

Florida Strong said the 60-second spot is the first in a campaign, which will later target individual lawmakers receiving special interest money.

The group declined to say how much it was spending on the ad.

 

February 08, 2016

Open-carry bill 'on life support' in Florida Senate, judiciary chairman says

Miguel dlp 020816

@ByKristenMClark

Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, says a proposal allowing some gun-owners to openly carry handguns in Florida is "on life support" and he will decide this week whether to grant a hearing on it.

"I have some serious concerns about open carry in light of what happened in the House last week," Diaz de la Portilla told reporters this afternoon. "I am concerned that it may become a vehicle for some very, very bad amendments. I think that's what we learned last week. ... Because of those concerns, I'm very, very seriously considering not hearing it at all."

Legislation allowing more than 1.5 million concealed-weapons permit-holders in Florida to openly carry easily passed the state House last week, mostly along party-lines. An amendment was added to it during floor debate, which would allow lawmakers to carry concealed on the chamber floors and in official committee meetings. Those locations are among several so-called "gun-free" zones designated in state law, where even concealed weapons are prohibited.

When asked if lawmakers should be able to pack heat on the chamber floors, Diaz de la Portilla said: "I don't think that's necessary. I think FDLE does a terrific job in protecting us."

He has been deliberating for months on whether to hear the Senate's version of the open-carry bill (SB 300), which has been at a standstill before his committee since it passed its first Senate panel in October.

If Diaz de la Portilla doesn't grant it another hearing, it effectively kills the Senate bill -- all-but-guaranteeing it won't become law this session.

Drawing the ire of the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups, Diaz de la Portilla already made the call against hearing another controversial gun bill that also passed the House last week. That one would allow concealed weapons on public college and university campuses.

Photo credit: Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times

South Florida auto dealer Rick Case asked Gov. Rick Scott to increase funding to Boys & Girls Clubs

@ByKristenMClark

A few months before lawmakers began debating how best to fund after-school programs next year, one prominent South Florida businessman put a bug in Republican Gov. Rick Scott's ear to increase state funding for the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs.

In an email to Scott's office in early October -- obtained by the Herald/Times through a public records request -- auto dealer Rick Case asked Scott to recommend $20 million total next year for the state Boys & Girls Clubs, with $10 million each from the departments of Education and Juvenile Justice.

"I do have some community business that I need your help with leading into the 2016 Legislative Session in January," Case led his email, after noting how he was "looking forward" to seeing Scott at Case's daughter's upcoming wedding. 

Case pointed out that the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs took a 50 percent cut in its state funding this year, which meant the Broward County Boys & Girls Club -- with which Case said he is "deeply involved" -- also lost almost half of its state aid received by way of the alliance.

"We are working hard here in Broward to make up that shortfall, but I really need you (sic) help to make our kids a priority in your budget submission this year," Case wrote.

He added: "You have to agree with me that there are few organizations that have an ROI (return on investment) like Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs in the State of Florida. Placing us in your budget will send a resounding signal for our efforts in every club working in their respective counties across the state."

It doesn't appear the plea had an effect on Scott, who recommended less funding for the alliance this year.

Scott's budget proposal kept education funding for the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs flat at $2.5 million for next year and recommended $600,000 in juvenile justice funding (down from $3 million this year).

Designated funding for after-school and mentoring programs are a point of contention in the Legislature's budget proposals for 2016-17.

The Senate wants to do away with line-item funding and replace it with a competitive grant program that more non-profit program providers can access. Senate education budget Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said that deciding which aftercare programs are funded by individual line items each year is “so much a function of lobbying" that he wanted a more fair process. More here.

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

@ByKristenMClark

Welcome to Week 5 of the 2016 session. Wednesday marks the halfway point! Most lawmakers will be back in town by this afternoon for committee meetings, with a regular schedule of work resuming Tuesday.

Here are some items we're watching today.

* Should future legislative sessions starts in January? The House government operations budget committee will consider a bill to do that for not next year, but in 2018. If enacted, that would mean a full year between the end of this session and the start of the 2017 session next March, but then another short window between 2017 and 2018 sessions. The hearing starts at 3.

* A Senate committee will take up a nondiscrimination bill for LGBT Floridians. It's the first time the legislation has ever had a hearing. The Senate Judiciary Committee at 1:30 p.m. will consider the controversial bill, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's civil rights protection laws, but it's already garnered opposition from social conservative and religious groups.

* Also before the Senate Judiciary Committee: a non-binding "memorial" urging Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which is often referred to as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. It's on the agenda but it could get postponed until Tuesday. The House version also is slated to be heard Tuesday.

* This afternoon, the Senate Criminal Justice will consider fixing Florida's death penalty in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed its sentencing procedure unconstitutional. Unlike the House, the Senate is proposing to go all the way and require unanimous jury recommendations. The hearing begins at 4.

* Community leaders from the western part of Tampa Bay will spend the evening at the Capitol, with "Leadership Pinellas" hosting a reception on the 22nd floor.

February 07, 2016

Florida Senate's plan for after-school programs has local providers rattled

05NC Britto paint party CLO

@ByKristenMClark

Republican leaders of the Florida Senate want to drastically change how they dole out funding for after-school programs that provide homework help, mentoring and gang prevention services to thousands of children, often living in Florida’s most impoverished and vulnerable neighborhoods.

Senators want to increase funding, provide it to more organizations and ensure the dollars are spent on programs proven to bolster children’s academic performance.

But without any notice about the proposed change, administrators of non-profits that rely year after year on the designated state funding said they feel blindsided and rattled with uncertainty and questions.

“It came out of nowhere,” said Daniel Lyons, executive director for the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs. “It just caught us off guard with how it all developed. ... It felt like a sucker-punch.”

Why? More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo

February 04, 2016

Ban red-light cameras? Florida Senate panel advances proposal

@ByKristenMClark

Above objections from local police chiefs and city and county officials, Florida lawmakers are advancing legislation to outlaw red-light cameras statewide.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, argues the devices -- which capture infractions and later result in sometimes costly tickets for motorists -- have "essentially no safety benefit" and he said they serve to do little more than line local governments' pockets with extra revenue.

"It’s a backdoor tax increase on citizens who often can't afford to pay it, and you’re making intersections less safe," Brandes said.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, agreed: "I don’t like the cash-register they’ve become either."

Brandes' bill (SB 168) to ban red-light cameras and prohibit local governments from using them got its first approval by a Senate committee Thursday morning, with Democrats opposed.

In the House, the effort is a little more bipartisan, with Reps. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, and Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, pushing HB 4027 together. They have a press conference scheduled for this afternoon to discuss their proposal. It received its first favorable vote two weeks ago, also with some Democratic opposition.

The state legalized red-light cameras in 2010.

But a growing number of municipalities -- including North Miami Beach and, recently, Gulfport near Tampa -- have voted to turn off their cameras or have stopped using the devices altogether in the face of public backlash, lawsuits and court rulings that found the devices could violate constitutional rights.

Last year, the Florida Supreme Court declined to take up an appeals court's ruling on a lawsuit challenging how the city of Hollywood used red-light tickets to enforce traffic laws in Broward County. The court said the city's outside private vendor had, "for all practical purposes," the power to decide which motorists were ticketed, when the city bears that responsibility.

Responding to Brandes' desire to outlaw the devices statewide, Democrats on the Senate Transportation Committee objected Thursday to what they called "an expansion of pre-emption" by the state and they questioned the validity of state data that Brandes presented to demonstrate proven increases in accidents because of the devices.

"It’s working in Orange County. We’ve seen people alter their behavior once they get a citation for running a red light," Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said "I personally think they work," citing his own experience getting a ticket, which he said deterred future infractions.

But he said cities should have the power to decide for themselves. That is what cities want, too.

The Florida League of Cities isn't weighing in on whether using the cameras is good or bad. The group does "support the ability of cities to use that tool" as a public-safety measure, said Scott Dudley, the league's legislative director.

In regards to Brandes calling it a hidden tax, Dudley countered: "It’s a hidden tax that can be easily avoided by not running a red light."

He said the larger traffic safety problem is cellphones and distracted driving.

"That’s really what the Legislature should be looking at," Dudley said.

Brandes ended the hearing with an emotional appeal, blasting the "cold-hearted" devices that don't have the capacity for leeway in doling out punishment, as police officers and sheriff's deputies have.

"It’s the cold, calculated nature of this I find most objectionable," Brandes said. "They don’t offer us the human side of law enforcement. They’re completely and utterly machine-driven."

His bill has two more committee stops before it could reach the Senate floor. Artiles and Jacobs' bill has one more committee to clear in the House.

The proposed law wouldn’t take effect until 2019 to allow time for municipalities’ contracts with vendors to expire, Brandes said.

 

February 03, 2016

Bill addressing backyard gun ranges heads to Gov. Rick Scott

@ByKristenMClark

Perhaps the least controversial gun-related measure before the Legislature this session is on its way to Republican Gov. Rick Scott's desk for his signature.

SB 130 would make it a misdemeanor crime to fire a gun outdoors recreationally, including for target shooting, in a primarily residential area.

It's aimed at protecting public safety by prohibiting backyard gun ranges in densely populated areas. Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, said the bill was prompted by the growing prominence of such ranges, which he said are set up "sometimes in a haphazard fashion."

The Senate passed it unanimously last week, and the House did the same Wednesday evening.

Florida Senate president: Gun bills are "in trouble"

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@ByKristenMClark and @MaryEllenKlas

Although the Florida House is expected to pass two controversial gun bills this afternoon, the odds are continuing to diminish that they'll become law this session.

Speaking to reporters today, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the proposals are "in trouble," as far as the Senate is concerned. One of the bills allows concealed weapons permit-holders to carry openly and another lets them carry concealed on public college and university campuses.

Gardiner has been consistent that the fate of the bills rests with Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where both bills await another hearing. Diaz de la Portilla said he won’t hear the campus-carry proposal in his committee for the second year in a row, and he indicated last week he could change his mind and not hear the open-carry plan, either.

Gardiner confirmed today that outcome is likely.

"I think now he has some concerns about open carry," Gardiner said of Diaz de la Portilla. "It's not my intent to pull those bills out of committee, so I would say, yeah, they're probably in trouble."

Diaz de la Portilla has not returned messages from the Herald/Times seeking comment.

For weeks, some Republican leaders in the Florida Senate haven't been as enthusiastic about the proposals as their counterparts in the more conservative House.

The open-carry bill was amended Tuesday evening on the House floor to also include a provision allowing Florida's 160 state lawmakers to carry concealed in official meetings of the Legislature, a location that's currently one of several so-called "gun-free zones" designated in state law.

Gardiner said he supports removing that exemption.

"To me, if you're taking away an exemption, especially for somebody else, you should live by that same standard," Gardiner said, "so it should be all the way across the board, but I don't know if we'll even get that bill to make that point."

Photo credit: Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, speaks to reporters with the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau during a pre-session interview late last year. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times

Son of Hillary Clinton donor to file for Florida state Senate, not Congress

@PatriciaMazzei

Andrew Korge has made up his mind: He will run for the Florida state Senate -- and not Congress -- this year.

A Democrat and the son of prominent Hillary Clinton donor Chris Korge, Andrew Korge had filed to run for the Legislature before flirting with a congressional race

He told the Miami Herald he made up his mind after taking a hard look at the redrawn Senate map and considering where he might be able to get more done.

"To run for Congress is a tremendous honor, but at the end of the day, seeing what these folks in Tallahassee are doing with this session, it's just had a tremendous effect on me," he said. "I want to make an impact, too, and when you think of a freshman congressperson and a freshman state senator -- you can really do something in Tallahassee."

Among his top issues, Korge cited protecting South Florida from climate change and fracking, and defending abortion rights. He's also got an interest in education policy.

For Congress, Korge would have challenged Annette Taddeo -- and possibly former Rep. Joe Garcia, who has yet to enter the race but has made it clear he probably will. Garcia's candidacy would have made it more difficult for a political novice like Korge to survive a primary.

Korge plans to send paperwork to Tallahassee Wednesday filing for Senate District 39. The expected Republican candidate in that seat would be Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, who would have to move to the district. Korge said he's intends to do the same.

The seat leans Hispanic -- which Flores is but Korge is not -- but also Democratic. Flores and Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard had worked out a deal where Flores would run for District 39 unopposed by a Democrat in order to avoid facing her colleague Bullard in District 40, where both now live.

Korge, who due to his family network would be less reliant on Senate Democrats' support, said talk of the agreement didn't sit well with him. "It is not uncommon or unusual for insiders in Tallahassee to cut deals at everyone else's expense. That's part of the frustration that everyone has with what's going on in Tallahassee. That's part of what needs to change."