May 05, 2017

Testing reforms in House's hands on lawmakers' final day to pass policy

Flores stargel (1)

@ByKristenMClark

After several days of private collaboration among lawmakers, one major late-night rewrite and some last-minute tweaks, senators unanimously passed a sweeping education bill on Thursday — the main feature of which is to address excessive testing in Florida’s public schools.

HB 549 eliminates only a single test — the Algebra 2 end-of-course exam — and it requires the state Department of Education to study by Jan. 1 whether national exams, like the SAT or ACT, can be used as alternatives to the Florida Standards Assessments and other statewide tests.

The results of that study could spur further action by lawmakers in the 2018 session to curb duplicative testing, which several senators had hoped to accomplish this year.

“Is this bill what I wanted? No. I wanted more, but ... I know that, at least, this is a good beginning,” said Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a former Leon County schools superintendent whose opinion on education policy is well-respected by the chamber.

HB 549 was the subject of prolonged haggling this week between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, and between the Senate and the House. It now goes to the House for final approval Friday, the last day lawmakers can vote on standalone policy legislation this session.

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, left, with Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times.

May 04, 2017

A possible explanation for why the House hasn't heard school recess

SP_409499_KEEL_2_FLGOV@ByKristenMClark

Because Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, hasn't brought the Senate-approved recess bill to the House floor (and there are no indications of that changing), the fate of that proposal now rests almost entirely on negotiations between the House and Senate over a massive education policy bill that must be resolved by the end of Friday.

Although session extended until Monday, that extra time applies only to the budget and "conforming" policy bills linked to that. All other run-of-the-mill policy bills -- such as the one mandating 20 minutes of daily recess in elementary schools -- die when floor sessions end Friday, the original scheduled end of session.

To keep recess in the conversation, Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores included it in a 72-page rewrite of another education bill that was published late Wednesday and could be heard on the Senate floor Thursday.

MORE: "Short on time, lawmakers seek to cram in new education policies — from testing to recess"

But why is school recess -- a measure overwhelmingly wanted by parents and one that could easily pass the House if brought to the floor -- up for negotiation in the first place?

Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman, offered one possible explanation Wednesday.

"That's a good question. We got to this point in session, and it's still up in the air, but as the speaker, I believe, said it’s still in play," Diaz said, adding: "We didn’t take that up, but if you look at it holistically, why didn’t they [the Senate] take up the single-policy education bills that we sent over?"

"We didn’t take up recess? I’ll shoot back and say, 'why didn’t you take up the schools of [hope]?' That’s the same for both sides," he added. "I’d have love to have been passing these individual policies, so it was clear and transparent. We sent them over but they’re not being picked up."

Corcoran previously has declined interview requests from the Herald/Times to discuss the recess bill, and he hasn't publicly explained why he won't take up the Senate bill as parents have pleaded with him to do through now more than a thousand emails and many dozen phone calls. Corcoran, a couple weeks ago, said there was still time to address recess, but he made no guarantees it would be heard.

Photo credit: Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

Will Senate reach bipartisan compromise on testing reforms, education policy?

Anitere Flores_ap

@ByKristenMClark

With two days left for lawmakers to enact policy this session, two Republican senators late Wednesday released what’s essentially a brand-new bill that salvages a myriad of stalled education proposals, while also preserving one of the Legislature’s top K-12 priorities: Reforms addressing excessive standardized testing in Florida public schools.

Sens. Anitere Flores, of Miami, and Kelli Stargel, of Lakeland, filed their 72-page amendment at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday to rewrite a House-approved education bill that had been just 17 pages in length.

Their new version of HB 549 also, notably, keeps in play for negotiation a parent-demanded proposal that mandates daily recess in Florida’s public elementary schools. The Senate approved the idea in early April, but House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, ignored parents' pleas to bring the standalone measure to the floor, even though it has the votes to easily pass.

HB 549 was one of two bills House members envisioned could be a vehicle for testing reforms — and various unresolved education policies — before session ends. It passed the House last Friday, 117-1, but Flores’ and Stargel’s amendment creates a bill much broader than the House considered.

More here.

Photo credit: AP

May 03, 2017

Democrats' criticism complicates Senate's testing reform plans

Montford

@ByKristenMClark

Lawmakers’ session-long efforts to substantively address over-testing in Florida’s public schools are stumbling to the finish line this week, after one key Democrat came out against a compromise bill senators will keep refining into Thursday.

Senate Democrats said legislation that’s supposed to reduce testing and otherwise improve the assessment regimen (SB 926) barely makes any major changes and is, instead, turning into a problematic hodgepodge of education policy they’re reluctant to support.

Time runs short. For the testing reforms to pass this year, both the House and Senate have to approve identical language before Friday.

A total re-write of SB 926 is possible overnight. It would attempt to address concerns from Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford and other senators, as well as school district superintendents — who say the legislation doesn’t go far enough to eliminate duplicative tests or afford schools the option of administering exams by pencil and paper (instead of by computer) among other reforms.

RELATED: “Senate committee strikes compromise toward reducing student assessment tests”

Venting his frustration early Wednesday, Montford — whose widely praised, bipartisan testing reform proposal was shelved so that Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores’ less comprehensive plan supported by Jeb Bush’s influential education foundation could advance instead — told his Democratic colleagues that if he’d had to vote that day, “I’d vote against this bill.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. AP

May 02, 2017

After failing to meet deadline, Legislature headed for OT

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@ByKristenMClark @stevebousquet @MichaelAuslen

Florida’s legislative session will head into overtime after two top Republicans — negotiating in private billions of dollars worth of spending and substantive policy — failed to meet a deadline to get an $83 billion budget done Tuesday night, so that the session could have ended on time on Friday.

As time expired Tuesday, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, both said the 60-day session would have to be prolonged, but they didn’t yet know for how long.

“You know the timetable as well as I do, with the 72-hour requirement. We will definitely not complete the budget work prior to the end of Friday,” Negron told reporters Tuesday evening — a few hours after House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, downplayed the increasingly expected delay by saying an on-time budget was still “90 percent likely.”

But earlier in the day, Trujillo was already guaranteeing lawmakers would remain in Tallahassee for longer than they’d planned.

More here.

Photo credit: House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, with Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

Session could be extended 'at least by a day,' Trujillo says

@ByKristenMClark @MichaelAuslen

Lawmakers now say they could extend the 60-day legislative session by “at least a day” but perhaps longer, because after days of private negotiations, House and Senate leaders still haven’t reached agreement on major sticking points of both funding and policy for the 2017-18 budget.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, told the Herald/Times around midday Tuesday that budget talks were going well, but it was unlikely legislative leaders would reach compromise on an $83 billion budget before day’s end — the deadline if the session was to end on schedule by Friday.

“We’ll extend at least a day, but I think one day max,” Trujillo said. That would push the session into Saturday, but Trujillo then said lawmakers would “maybe lay [the budget] on the table and come back Monday,” which would require at least an additional three days.

More here.

Miami-Dade state attorney not happy prosecutors won't get raises, while public defenders could

via @DavidOvalle305

Public defenders may be getting pay raises. And prosecutors may not.

And that isn’t sitting well with Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who on Monday emailed her entire staff to apologize — and to criticize Florida lawmakers, saying “our Legislature did not see fit to acknowledge your tireless work on behalf of our community.”

In unusually frank language, the longtime elected Democrat singled out Sen. President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, “who previously stated that he thinks the prosecution has an easier job than the defense,” according to her email.

At issue: Senate Bill 7030 boosts pay for public defenders with three years of experience or more by 6 percent. The bill, which passed the Senate’s appropriations committee on Monday, did not do the same for Florida prosecutors.

The issue, however, is not a done deal as the Senate and House leadership work to hash out final budget before Tuesday.

Full story here.

May 01, 2017

Hostility erupts among Senate Democrats over property tax cut

MONTFORDMay1_8colvia @stevebousquet

Hostility erupted Monday at a midday meeting of the 15-member Senate Democratic Caucus over a pivotal and controversial vote to ask Florida voters to increase the homestead exemption by $25,000 -- to $75,000.

With the Senate poised to vote later Monday, Democrats did not take a caucus position to oppose a proposal that cities and counties say would force them to increase taxes and fees on poor people, including renters, and small businesses.

MORE: "Property tax proposal: Middle class cut or massive tax shift?"

The Senate needs 24 votes to pass the proposal, and there are 23 Republicans, with one seat vacant and one senator absent. So if the Democrats remained united, they could defeat the tax break and hand Republicans a huge political defeat.

But Democrats aren't united. Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said there was no point in seeking a caucus position when some Democrats are poised to vote for it (Democrats Lauren Book of Plantation and Bill Montford voted yes in the Rules Committee last week).

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, assailed Republicans for targeting poor people. "This hurts poor people. You can deny it if you want," Clemens said.

That prompted a sharp rebuttal from Montford, who represents some of the smallest and poorest counties in the state (which are largely shielded from the loss in property tax revenue under a higher homestead exemption). 

"If we really believe that Republicans are that sinister," Montford said, then Democrats need to demand a special session on the issue later this summer. "Those are serious, serious accusations," Montford said.

Another clash erupted between Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point. Rouson was upset at Farmer's comment that "ordinary people" may not fully grasp the fiscal impact of voting themselves a property tax break.

"What I can't get past is the comment that the voters can't be trusted," Rouson said.

Photo credit: Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, at a Democratic caucus meeting Monday. Steve Bousquet / Herald/Tmes

Daisy Baez announces campaign for Frank Artiles' open Senate seat

Daisy baez@ByKristenMClark

Freshman state Rep. Daisy Baez, D-Coral Gables, officially says she's running for the vacant state Senate seat left open after Miami Republican Frank Artiles resigned 10 days ago.

Baez announced her candidacy in a statement Monday, saying the state Senate "is where I believe the most good can be accomplished on behalf of Floridians."

"The people of Miami-Dade deserve to have high quality public schools for their children, good-paying jobs that provide economic security for working families, and access to quality, affordable healthcare," she said. "I look forward to continuing my steadfast advocacy on behalf of Florida families in the State Senate."

Several candidates have expressed interest in Artiles' District 40 seat, which represents a largely Hispanic population and leans Democratic.

Baez is the first to formally launch a campaign for the special election that will determine Artiles' replacement. Due to House rules prohibiting fundraising during the legislative session, Baez cannot begin raising money for what's expected to be a hotly contested race until after session ends Friday.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott has not yet scheduled that election. He said Monday he's "reviewing it."

Baez was elected to the state House barely six months ago. She won with 51 percent of the vote over Republican John Couriel. She represents District 114 in southeastern Miami, the former seat of Republican Erik Fresen who left office in 2016 due to term limits.

Baez was born in the Dominican Repubican and emigrated to the U.S. at age 17. She served in the U.S. Army, where she received numerous medals of achievement, and she now works as the director of the Dominican Health Care Association of Florida.

Last fall, she campaign on a platform of supporting a living wage, equal pay and more money for public education, and of opposing steering taxpayer money to private, for-profit institutes and wants to restore cuts to Bright Futures scholarships.

"As a veteran and an immigrant, I have spent my adult life working hard to repay this country for the incredible opportunities provided to my family and I so we could achieve the American Dream," Baez said Monday. "Serving in the Florida House has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and serving in the Florida Senate will allow me to continue to work on behalf of our community in a much greater capacity."

-- Mary Ellen Klas and Amy Sherman contributed.

Education policy still under negotiation, with promised public meetings perhaps in doubt

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@ByKristenMClark

Heading into the final week of session, House and Senate leaders by Monday morning were still negotiating in secret several pieces of substantial education policy that are tied to the budget -- such as a $200 million idea to create "schools of hope" that would help students in failing schools and a $214 million expansion to teacher bonuses.

Lawmakers had vowed repeatedly, especially in the past several days, that the compromise proposals would be released in time for Floridians to provide meaningful comment before a vote on the annual budget, but no language has been released yet -- although House and Senate leaders had said it would come over the weekend.

MORE: "As clock ticks, lawmakers’ compromises on education policy remain a mystery"

Just Saturday, Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, promised public meetings to consider the policy bills "one by one," and House pre-K-12 budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said, "I do believe you will see that go on in public," in reference to open, public debate among lawmakers prior to any vote or final compromise on language.

But on Sunday night, House Appropriations chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, deflected from the two chambers' previous promises of transparency, telling reporters that he personally never guaranteed public hearings on any policy bills linked to the 2017-18 budget.

"I’m not sure if we’ll have an opportunity for public comment, because we're still working on the bills," Trujillo initially told reporters, noting there was really only about 48 hours or so to shore them up.

After House budget director JoAnne Leznoff interjected and he conferred with her, Trujillo then said at least one more public hearing would be held to address only the budget-related legislation, which also includes environmental policy and other topics. (An email a short while later from Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said there would be an additional meeting on remaining budget items, too.)

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, set the tone and expectation of transparency for this session by promising "unprecedent openness" and a genuine change from how legislative business had been done in previous years. That hasn't turned out to be the case.

MORE: “ ‘Unprecedented openness’ slams shut as Corcoran, Negron forge secret budget deal

Diaz and Senate pre-K-12 budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, each told the Herald/Times on Sunday there were still disagreements on language that legislative staff was working out. Simmons added that the Senate was waiting on a House offer, but he remained optimistic that the chambers would reach middle ground on a final product that would have broad support.

Trujillo could not say when the policy bills would be released or how much time Floridians would have to analyze them before they're finalized. Unlike the budget -- which requires a 72-hour cooling-off period -- conforming bills need to be done only 24 hours before lawmakers vote on the budget, he said. Session is scheduled to end Friday.

Fort Lauderdale Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston, who sits on the Pre-K-12 Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said he was eager to know what the final language for the education bills, in particular, looks like. "I think it's important that we, as a body as well as a community, know exactly where we're going with them," Thurston said.

"I'm not for the 'schools of hope.' I would like to see the final formation and what are we going to do and what's going to be included in it," he added. "I think the process of kicking everything up (to Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron) is not transparent at all."

Image credit: House Appropriations chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. Florida Channel