February 07, 2016

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

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@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."

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

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@ByKristenMClark

The governor plays cornhole at the Florida Capitol, lawmakers huddle for initial budget talks and controversial gun bills get a floor vote in the House. Here's what we're watching today:

* Proposed plans for the 2016-17 budget will go before the House's and Senate's full appropriations committees. Both chambers have scheduled daylong meetings to debate and revise their respective proposals, which were released Friday. (House Appropriations, 8 a.m., 212 Knott Building. Senate Appropriations, 9 a.m. 412 Knott Buiding)

* Gov. Rick Scott is elevating his efforts to persuade the Legislature to support his call for a $1 billion tax cut and $250 million in business incentives. In a rare move, he's hosting a rally at the Florida Capitol, starting at 11 a.m. It will feature "leaders from around the state" and a specialty cornhole set branded with Scott's slogan of "1st For Jobs."

* The House Finance and Tax Committee, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, plans to formally unveil its "bipartisan" tax cut package -- and "much anticipated" hashtag -- during a press conference after the committee's meeting, set for 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

* More than 100 employees of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa plan to visit with House and Senate members to help draw support for a $3 billion gaming compact, which the Seminole tribe and the governor signed but which the Legislature is hesitant to back.

* The House convenes for session at 3. After heated debate yesterday evening, the chamber is expected to pass two controversial gun bills and consider a slew of other legislation on the table.

Photo credit: Gov. Rick Scott's office

February 02, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Both the House and Senate are in session today, and they'll have plenty of old and familiar faces on hand as their special guests for the morning. Here's what we're watching:

* Current and former lawmakers will come together in each chamber, as part of a weeklong legislative reunion in Tallahassee. The House is set to honor former members during a special "reunion" session from 9:15-10 a.m., and then the Senate plans to do the same from 11 a.m. to noon, after an hour of regular floor work.
 
* The House convenes again for its regular session at 4 p.m. Daily business is set to include debate on sanctuary cities, revisions to the state's 10-20-Life law and two high-profile guns bills -- open carry and campus carry.
 
* The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee will consider a proposal to address Florida's death penalty procedures in the wake of the Hurst v. Florida U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this month. A Senate panel held a similar hearing last week. Along that same vein, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning on whether Hurst applies to the case of death-row inmate Michael Lambrix, who has been denied a stay for his execution set for Feb. 11.
 
* The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee will debate two controversial ideas: Making both the commissioner of education and the secretary of state elected positions.
 
* A contingent of current and former NFL players will join Democratic lawmakers for a press conference urging the Legislature to sign off on a settlement deal reached in the wrongful death suit of Florida State University freshman linebacker Devaughn Darling. Darling collapsed and died in 2001 while participating in a series of intense conditioning drills at FSU.

February 01, 2016

Body-camera bill starts moving in Florida Senate

@ByKristenMClark

A state Senate committee gave initial approval Monday to a proposal that would require law enforcement agencies in Florida that use body cameras — such as several police departments in Miami-Dade and Broward counties — to have policies in place regulating use of the devices and storage of the footage they capture.

Senate Bill 418 by Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, mirrors a House measure that got initial traction in the fall.

The proposal falls short of requiring agencies to use body cameras, but Smith said it would ensure that those officers who wear the devices are trained to use them properly and follow appropriate rules. Body cameras have become a more common tool to accurately document officer interactions with the public.

“We need rules and regulations in place so that if anything goes bad, we can look at those rules and regulations and make sure they’re doing it the right way,” Smith said.

More here.

January 29, 2016

Budget plans reveal Florida House, Senate far apart in school construction dollars

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@ByKristenMClark

The state House is proposing to give Florida's 650 charter schools almost twice as much of the state's sought-after school construction dollars than traditional public schools next year.

But over in the Senate, members wants to give them zilch, while traditional public schools would still get $50 million.

At least on paper.

The figures come from each chamber's proposed budget bills, released today. But House and Senate education budget committee chairmen caution not to read too much into the proposed line-items.

It's still relatively early in the legislative budget process, and both Senate Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said this week that they hadn't finalized figures for fixed capital outlay dollars yet nor determined how much exactly should go to either traditional public schools or charter schools.

Fresen said in a text message today that the specifics will be hashed out later when House and Senate leaders eventually meet in conference committee to settle on the final state budget.

"Those are block numbers," he said, referring to the fixed capital outlay line-items. "It doesn't really mean much right now."

But the proposed figures offer insight into each chamber's priorities and potential bargaining chips going forward.

Continue reading "Budget plans reveal Florida House, Senate far apart in school construction dollars" »

Florida House wants $601M increase to K-12 education funding

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House is also seeking a big boost in K-12 education funding next year, proposing an extra $601 million more for schools.

Both the House and Senate are seeking to increase K-12 education funding even more so than what Republican Gov. Rick Scott has proposed.

Scott called for $500 million in extra funding. The House would increase that by another $100 million, while the Senate has pitched an extra $650 million, or $150 million more than Scott's plan.

But the the point of contention continues to be how much of those new dollars will come from the state versus growing revenues from local property taxes.

Some Republicans in both chambers argue increasing the required local effort constitutes a "tax increase," and they're not on board with that -- especially in the Senate.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee for education, said his panel would consider several alternatives early next week, including replacing local property taxes with state tax revenue. More here.

Some lawmakers would prefer scaling back the local dollars and counting that toward the $1 billion in tax cuts that Scott wants, or even just simply acknowledging that the increase in education spending would cut into the overall tax cuts.

"If we cut taxes here a billion dollars and raise them $500 million at home, we need to call it a $500 million tax decrease, not $1 billion," said Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, a member of the House education budget committee.

That chamber's plan uses Scott's method of predominantly relying on local property tax revenue -- which House Education Budget Committee Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, describes as an "adjustment with no actual increase in the millage."

But even if the tax rate doesn't change, property owners' tax bills will likely still be higher because of improved property values statewide.

Fresen said the proportion of local taxes toward education declined from 2009 to 2013, "so during a time of declining tax rolls, it was essentially a tax cut," so he said this adjusts for that now that property values are rebounding.

Fresen rolled out the House proposal during a swift discussion on Thursday. The chamber unveiled its full budget plan this morning.

For K-12 education, the House recommends a total budget of $20.3 billion, with $7,232 in per-pupil funding. The current level is about $7,107 per student this year.

To fund the House's plan of an extra $601 million in K-12 education, about 78 percent of that -- or $505 million -- would come from required and discretionary local dollars. About $95 million would come from the state.

By comparison, Scott's budget proposal called for a $20.2 billion education budget with funding of $7,221 per student. He wants to increase K-12 dollars by $507.3 million in 2016-17. But only about $80 million of that would be extra state aide, while $427.3 million — 85 percent — would come from property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay

Meanwhile, the Senate's budget plan is about $50 million more than the House's and $150 million more than the governor's. It's roughly $20.3 billion, with $7,249 in per-pupil funding.

To fund its $650 million increase -- for now -- the Senate has penciled in similar proportions of local and state funding as the House and governor, but Gaetz expects that to change given his and his colleagues' discontent with that calculation.