January 20, 2016

Florida House, Senate committees advance open enrollment measures


Students in K-12 public schools across Florida could attend any public school in the state so long as it's not at capacity, under open enrollment proposals that cleared their first House and Senate committees Wednesday.

The House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee advanced House Bill 669 from Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, despite objections from Democrats. Later, a majority of the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee also endorsed Senate Bill 886 from Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, with similar criticisms but less friction.

Both plans seek to remove geographic barriers parents and children face in terms of where a child can attend public school in Florida -- while giving priority to students who live within a school district already, as well as children of military service members. 

Sprowls' proposal would allow open enrollment starting in the 2017-18 school year, but there's a complication. Allowing students to attend schools outside their county would affect how state and local dollars are used to pay for schools.

Sprowls' plan calls for a fiscal study through Florida Polytechnic University to analyze how the local share of state education dollars could be transferred among schools and districts. But that study wouldn't have to be done until November 2017 -- a few months into the first year that open enrollment would be allowed.

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January 18, 2016

Further changes to Florida Senate seal awaiting final approval


After removing the Confederate battle flag from the Florida Senate's emblem last fall, senators are expected to vote again this week to make further changes to the chamber's seal.

The additional revisions were expected, because some senators wanted an overhaul of the seal in its entirety rather than simply swapping out the Confederate battle flag for the state flag in a design that the Florida Senate had had for 40 years.

That design includes a banner of five flags in all -- the four others being: the United States flag, the 1513 Spanish flag, the 1564 French flag and the 1763 Great Britain flag.

The new design that the Senate Rules Committee endorsed last week would remove the foreign flags and leave only the state and U.S. flags. A mock-up of that concept is not yet available.

Rules Committee Chairman Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, cited historical accuracy as the reasoning behind the additional proposed changes.

It was the same explanation he gave for supporting the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the seal -- although the impetus of that request by Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, was the racially motivated church shooting in Charleston, S.C. last summer and the Confederate icon's use in that and other instances dating back to the civil-rights era as a symbol of racism and intimidation.

Speaking of the foreign flags on the seal, "only one of those -– the Union Jack -- was an official national flag at the time Florida was occupied by foreign powers," Simmons said last week. "The other flags on the seal are arguably speculative. ... Given the Senate’s legendary intolerance for historical error, we’re correcting this."

The proposed additional change garnered unanimous, bipartisan support from the Rules Committee.

"Going in this direction certainly shows that as a body we are willing to continue to discuss what gives angst to one senator or another and we can reach an amenable compromise," said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville. "Because, truly, the seal is the seal of the Senate and should represent every senator’s wishes."

Simmons said Friday he'll bring the proposed rule change to the full Senate when it convenes for session on Thursday afternoon. It's expected to pass and needs approval from a two-thirds majority, or support from 27 of 40 members.

Senate staff temporarily replaced the seal behind the chamber's rostrum for the 2016 session with one that removes the Confederate battle flag. That emblem and all other appearances of it throughout the Capitol are expected to be replaced over the summer to reflect this latest, more-permanent design.

January 15, 2016

Senate passes bill promoting jobs for Floridians with disabilities


A plan to improve job opportunities for Floridians with disabilities is on its way to Gov. Rick Scott's desk after earning unanimous favor in the Florida Senate on Friday.

The legislation was the third and final bill House and Senate leaders aimed to get off their plates during the first week of the 2016 session. Scott plans to sign it Thursday, along with two others the Legislature sent over yesterday: a sweeping water policy bill and a bill promoting educational opportunities for people with disabilities.

The jobs bill, like the education bill, was a priority for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

Among the bill's highlights, it:

-- creates a financial literacy program to help people with developmental disabilities

-- requires state agencies to report annual progress toward increasing employment of women, minorities and people with disabilities

-- requires the state to develop workforce programs to enhance job training and work experience for people with disabilities

-- and, establishes the Florida Unique Abilities Partner Program to identify businesses that hire people with disabilities and encourage other businesses to do so.

"We need to lead by example so we’re going to do that, but we also need to recognize businesses that are doing it and track and make sure that individuals with unique abilities are getting jobs, which is obviously a priority for us and the governor," Gardiner told reporters.

He called the first week of the 2016 session "a really, really good week," and told senators to rest up over the long weekend for what's to come.

"It’s been a good week for the residents of the great state of Florida," he said during this morning's session. "These bills and the water bill and others, we’re changing lives with that. ... Next week and every week after is going to get a little tougher and there’s going to be a little more stress."

The Senate returns for session Tuesday afternoon, following the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

January 14, 2016

Florida Senate moves ahead with "choice in sports" proposal


A sweeping proposal to bring "school choice" to Florida high school athletics and other extracurricular activities passed its first Senate committee Thursday, despite concerns that it could encourage rampant recruiting of student-athletes.

Senate Bill 684 -- approved unanimously by the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee -- builds on lawmakers' efforts in recent years to grant more flexibility for student-athletes so they can participate in programs immediately when they transfer schools.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland -- who's spearheading the legislation with Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz -- said student-athletes should have the same right as any other student who participates in extracurricular activities to transfer to whatever school of their choice and be immediately eligible to participate in school activities.

The current limitation requires transfer students to wait until the next sports season before participating in sports. It stems from a rule by the Florida High School Athletic Association, the state-designated governing body for high school athletics.

Although the FHSAA supports Stargel and Gaetz's legislation, some athletics officials in Florida disagree with lawmakers about allowing immediate eligibility, especially without geographic limitations. They worry the proposal will legitimize abuses that are already occurring, such as students shopping for top programs or being recruited.

To "dispel" those fears, the legislation includes harsh penalties for coaches and school officials who recruit student-athletes. It calls for a $5,000 fine for the first offense, the fine and a one-year's suspension from coaching for the second offense, and the fine and the loss of their teaching license for the third offense.

"To provide more of a choice in athletics, we wanted to make sure that recruiting carried a very heavy penalty," Gaetz said.

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January 13, 2016

Senators debate 'Best and Brightest' teacher bonuses



Mirroring other actions in the early days of the 2016 session to encourage friendly relations between the House and Senate, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, invited the House's education budget chairman to join senators in a discussion Wednesday about the controversial "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program.

Legg, chairman of the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee, acknowledged the "unorthodox move," but said he wanted to hear directly from Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, about the 1-year-old program, which is Fresen's brainchild and which House leaders want to continue.

"It is a good-faith effort to work with the House on a priority of their's," said Legg, one of several senators questionable of the program.

During an hourlong discussion, Fresen defended the teacher bonus plan, which critics allege was snuck into this year's budget during the special budget session over the summer. He refuted that and cited several committee hearings in the House last spring, in which the program was debated in various forms.

But such hearings never occurred in the Senate, so Wednesday was among members' first opportunities to debate the program.

Lawmakers allocated $44 million for the 2015-16 budget to give bonuses to the state's "Best and Brightest" teachers -- those who scored in the top 20 percent of their year when they took SAT or ACT exams in high school. For teachers who are more than a year into the job, they'd also have to be rated as "high-performing" in order to be eligible for the cash.

More than 5,300 teachers statewide qualified in the program's inaugural year. They're each due to receive $8,256.27 in April, according to the Department of Education.

The bonus plan has come under intense scrutiny and has sparked a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. The FEA argues the program discriminates against older teachers and minority teachers because they're less likely to be eligible.

Fresen's effort to see the "Best and Brightest" program continue faces hurdles in both the House and Senate this year, and its chances are unclear.

Senators on Wednesday -- both Republicans and Democrats -- probed the mechanics of the program, and many said it didn't make sense, particularly when there's no direct correlation between effective teachers and those who score well on standardized exams.

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Proposal allowing computer coding as foreign language advances


A controversial idea to allow high school students to count computer coding classes toward foreign language credits cleared its second committee in the Florida Senate on Wednesday -- but senators did not seek to resolve concerns it could impose an unfunded mandate on schools.

Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, had previously said the Senate's education budget committee would address the fiscal impact of his plan (SB 468), but that panel on Wednesday discussed nothing about the dollars that might be needed to fund it.

Ring said after the meeting that he felt there were no financial impacts, because Senate committee staff didn't note any when reviewing the bill. The analysis acknowledges, however: "The bill may have a minimal fiscal impact on school districts as they shift resources to offer more computer coding courses."

Some senators previously worried that the bill would place a burden on schools -- especially those with already strapped technology resources -- by requiring them to have sufficient computers, software and specialized teachers to meet the demand of students who opt to learn coding in lieu of a foreign language.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, said he voted against it again Wednesday because his concerns weren't addressed. The rest of the Senate budget committee voted in favor of the bill.

"All it takes is that one parent and it overburdens schools when they say, 'I want my child to have computer coding,' because now you have to figure out how to facilitate a teacher and space," Bullard said. "All of those have dollars attached, and none of those concerns were remedied."

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January 12, 2016

No decision yet whether gun bills will proceed in Florida Senate



The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said he hasn't determined yet whether two controversial pieces of gun legislation will be heard before his panel during Florida's 2016 legislative session.

Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla holds the fate of the NRA-backed bills in his hands. One (HB 4001 / SB 68) would allow 1.4 million people with concealed-weapons permits in Florida to carry firearms on state college and university campuses. The other (HB 163 / SB 300) would let those same permit-holders openly carry wherever they're allowed to carry concealed now.

Both bills gained swift favor from Republicans during committee weeks in the run-up to the session, which began Tuesday. But in the Senate, they're both at a standstill until Diaz de la Portilla decides whether to schedule hearings.

"I'm reviewing both bills," he told reporters Tuesday. "We want to make sure we dot our I's and cross our T's before we make a decision on whether to agenda those or not."

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Florida Senate president aims to send 3 bills to Gov. Scott this week


With the 2016 legislative session underway, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, says he hopes to get House and Senate leaders' top priorities cleared from both chambers and sent to Gov. Rick Scott's desk by Friday.

Those include a comprehensive water policy plan that died with the abrupt end to last year's session and two bills in a package of initiatives led by Gardiner to improve educational and job opportunities for Floridians who have disabilities.

"It could be a very good week and I think it sets the tone for where we are over the next 60 days," Gardiner told reporters after the opening session.

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Video(s): What to watch for in Florida's 2016 legislative session

From tax cuts and health care to gambling and guns, here are six key issues and themes to watch for as the 2016 Florida legislative session gets underway today.

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January 11, 2016

Video: Previewing gun proposals for the 2016 legislative session


There's been buzz for several weeks about controversial proposals that Republican lawmakers are considering in the hopes of expanding gun owners' rights in Florida. Now that the 2016 legislative session is beginning this week, we'll find out just how far these proposals will go and if they truly have a chance to become law.

One of the proposals -- to allow concealed-weapons permit-holders to carry guns on public college and university campuses -- made headway last year but died when that session ended abruptly.

But the committee weeks last fall gave lawmakers plenty of time to revive that plan for 2016 and begin work on others -- including one that would allow concealed-weapons licensees to openly carry firearms in Florida and another that relaxes Florida's stand-your-ground law by shifting the burden of proof in court.

None of the bills is a walk in the park.

The stand-your-ground bill needs some political maneuvering in order to pass both chambers, and heading into the session, the open-carry and campus-carry bills are at a standstill, although they're likely to clear the House. Both await further hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Miami Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla has so far been mum on whether they'll be heard. If he doesn't take them up, the bills have minimal, if any, chance at being enacted.

The other factor to consider: 2016 is an election year, and politicians often don't want controversial votes on their record if they're in competitive races. With that reality in mind, legislators might be more hesitant to consider bills like these.