March 09, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee


With just three days left in the 2016 session, lawmakers are quickly running out of time to shore up legislation they want passed this year. The Senate starts at 10, with the most on its plate; the House has delayed its start to noon in the hopes that the Senate will send some bills back its way.

Here's what we're watching:

* Senators are slated to vote on a massive education bill today that's been delayed the past two days.

* The Senate is also expected to vote on new abortion restrictions that would, among other things, ban state money from paying for preventative care at abortion clinics.


* Other items before the Senate: a bill targeting the Florida School Boards Association, a constitutional amendment to give businesses property tax breaks if they buy solar panels, and a proposal allowing immigrants lawfully residing in the U.S. for less than five years to be insured under the state and federal KidCare program.

* Among its relatively short agenda headed into the day, the House is poised to vote on repealing a 148-year-old law that prohibits unmarried couples from living together in Florida. If it passes (as expected), it goes to the governor.

* The Florida Commission on Offender Review meets at 9 a.m. to consider parole cases for criminals convicted in the 1970s and 1980s.

March 08, 2016

It's now legal in Florida to break into cars to rescue vulnerable people, pets


Floridians can now legally break into locked vehicles to rescue pets or vulnerable people who are "in imminent danger of suffering harm."

HB 131 took effect today and is among 16 bills Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed into law.

The new law is in direct response to a growing number of incidents where pets, children and others have died because they've been left in overheated cars, particularly under Florida's steamy summer sun.

Under the new law, individuals can't be sued for breaking into a car to rescue someone, so long as they have:

-- first checked the vehicle is locked;

-- called 911 or law enforcement before entering the vehicle or immediately after doing so;

-- uses no more force than is necessary to break in;

-- and remains with the person or animal until first-responders arrive.

House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, ushered the proposal through the Legislature this session with unanimous support.

Crackdown on gas-station skimmers goes to Gov. Rick Scott's desk to be signed into law


Among the bills to clear the Legislature during this last week of the 2016 session is a proposal that cracks down on illegal credit-card skimming devices at gas stations.

SB 912 passed the House unanimously on Tuesday, after unanimously clearing the Senate last week. It now goes to Republican Gov. Rick Scott's desk for his signature.

"Skimmers" are devices that steal credit and debit card information. The legislation requires gas pumps to have certain security measures to better thwart criminals' attempts to install the devices and steal customers' financial information. It also increases law enforcement's ability to make arrests and prosecute criminals with harsher potential penalties.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, with support from state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regularly inspects the state's nearly 8,000 gas stations and has found more than 190 skimmers since the start of 2015, Putnam's office said.

This past week, inspectors found one device in Pompano Beach, two in Tampa and one in Orlando, the office said.

“Protecting consumers from identity theft at gas pumps requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. I thank Senator Flores, Leader Young, the Senate and the House of Representatives for their support of this key consumer protection legislation,” Putnam said today.

Flores and Young added in the statement that the legislative approval is a "victory for consumers."

“Consumers shouldn’t have to worry about identity theft when filling their gas tanks, and this legislation will help protect Floridians and visitors from skimmers," Flores said.

About 100 consumers are victimized by each skimmer, resulting in $1,000 stolen from each victim on average. Each skimmer represents an estimated $100,000 threat to consumers, Putnam's office said.

Tom Grady confirmed to Florida State Board of Education

IMG_GRADY.JPG_6_1_U335J022 (1)


The Florida Senate this morning confirmed a former state lawmaker and former interim president of Citizens Insurance to the State Board of Education.

Tom Grady has been serving on the board since late last year, after Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a close friend, appointed him to a vacant seat last fall. His appointment was subject to the Senate's approval.

Grady's appointment was approved Tuesday unanimously en masse with 15 other education-related appointments. In such cases, senators have the option to record with the Senate secretary a "no" vote on any individual appointee.

Grady, a 57-year-old wealthy securities lawyer from Naples, most recently served on the Florida Gulf Coast University board of trustees, also as a Scott appointee.

In the 1990s, Grady was a director of the Collier County Education Foundation. He served one term in the Florida House from 2008 to 2010.

Grady sparked controversy for his hefty travel spending during his brief tenure in 2012 as interim president of Citizens Property Insurance.

In less than two months overseeing the state-run provider, he spent nearly $10,000 on expensive hotel rooms, airplane trips, a limo ride and a three-night stay in Bermuda. Grady defended the spending, saying he was actually “very frugal.” He lost the permanent job to a Maryland insurance executive, amid questions raised by the Tampa Bay Times about his spending habits. He returned to the private sector.

Grady's term on the State Board of Education ends on Dec. 31, 2018.

Photo credit: Gov. Rick Scott, right, greets Tom Grady during the Aug. 2, 2011 Cabinet meeting in which Grady was appointed head of Financial Regulation. Bill Cotterell / Tallahassee Democrat

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today


Following a late-night budget conference on Monday, the final proposed $80 billion state budget is getting printed and expected to arrive on lawmakers' desks sometime this morning -- starting the clock for the constitutionally required 72-hour waiting period until they can vote on it Friday. That means the Legislature is on track to finish session as scheduled this year.

Meanwhile, here's what we're watching today out of Tallahassee:

* The House is expected to vote on a bill that gives families up to $7,500 to bury the remains of children exhumed in unmarked graves at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in North Florida, west of Tallahassee.

* Other significant bills on the House's agenda today deal with civil asset forfeiture and alimony. The House session starts at 10 a.m.

* The Florida Supreme Court will start to hear appeals from several death-row inmates, who argue their death sentences are no longer valid because the law that was in effect when they were sentenced has been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

* The Senate will consider a bill (SB 766/HB 499) that would set limits on local value adjustment boards' consideration of property value petitions. This is a priority for Miami-Dade County officials, who say the current process "short-changes" the school district by delaying tax revenue the district relies on.

* Gov. Rick Scott plans to make a "major economic announcement" for 2017 at 11 a.m. at Orlando's Citrus Bowl Varsity Club.

March 07, 2016

Sen. Detert stands by previous vote on teacher bonus program although it's 'worst & dumbest'


In defending their decision to put the "Best & Brightest" teacher bonuses into the annual state budget again, Republican Senate leaders argue that the controversial program "was heard" in the Senate this year, as members wanted.

There were a few informal discussions, but the only vote cast (so far) on the policy by itself was in January before the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee -- where it advanced by a single vote.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, was the deciding vote in that decision, which averted what could have been an early defeat for the contentious policy this session.

She said at the time, and again Monday, that she opposes the program but voted in favor of the bill then only to get it out of committee.

The program rewards "highly effective" teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores -- an unproven correlation that most Democrats and some Republicans don't support.

Detert said Monday she wanted to "get it to the floor and have an open discussion about the substance of the bill itself. It's too bad we didn't get to that point."

"I would rather vote it down and kill it permanently, because it’s the worst and dumbest," Detert added, "but if they put it in the budget, I have no choice but to vote for the budget."

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Legislation mandating policies for officer-worn body cameras goes to Gov. Rick Scott's desk



Legislation that requires Florida law enforcement agencies to have policies for using body cameras is on its way to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, after clearing the Florida Senate on Monday.

Senators voted 37-0 to send HB 93 to Scott’s desk. It also unanimously passed the House last week.

The legislation does not require Florida’s more than 300 police agencies to use body cameras — only to have regulations and proper training protocols in place if they do use the devices.

It builds on a law passed last year that exempts certain body-camera footage from being disclosed under Florida’s public records law.

“This bill gives us that opportunity to go further to make sure that we are providing transparency to our citizens but also give accountability to our law enforcement,” said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, who sponsored the bill with Broward County Democrats Rep. Shevrin Jones, of West Park, and Sen. Chris Smith, of Fort Lauderdale.

“We don’t want the bad cops to give the good cops a black eye,” Williams said.

Officer-worn body cameras have become a more common tool to document law enforcement interactions with the public — most notably, instances of police misconduct.

Smith said the bill should help “get rid of a lot of the speculation when it comes to law enforcement incidents.”

As of October, 18 police agencies in Florida — including Miami and Miami Beach — used body cameras and another 10 were operating pilot programs.

HB 93 has support from the family of Corey Jones, who was shot and killed in October by a Palm Beach Gardens police officer following an encounter after Jones’ car broke down on an I-95 ramp.

Had this legislation been law at the time, though, it wouldn’t have helped investigators in the Jones case because Palm Beach Gardens didn’t use body cameras. The city authorized spending in January to equip its officers with the devices.

Photo credit: In May 2015, Miami Beach Police Sgt. Alex Bello shows a body camera for officers to use on a patrol simulating a traffic stop. Walter Michot / Miami Herald

Sweeping education bill - with capital funding reforms - ready for Senate vote on Monday



Florida senators are poised on Monday to vote on a wide-ranging education bill that includes numerous high-profile proposals -- including reforms for capital funding for traditional and charter schools, open enrollment for all Florida public school students, more accountability measures for charter schools, and immediate eligibility and recruiting penalties for 285,000 high school athletes.

A far more simple and narrow version of the bill (HB 7029) passed the House last month, but in the Senate, it was loaded up with amendments spearheaded by Sen. Don Gaetz, both in committee last week and on the floor Friday.

The version that senators will vote on Monday clocks in at 132 pages. Many of the proposals are included in bills that the Senate and House have either passed off the floor or considered in committee.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, on Friday added to the bill his plan for changing how traditional and charter schools receive capital funding from the state and how they can use that money.

The proposal bans charter schools from receiving capital dollars for "private enrichment," and it steers funding to charter schools that mostly serve impoverished students or those who have disabilities. School districts also could be penalized -- by losing state capital funding -- if they exceed a state-imposed cap on spending for construction and maintenance projects, unless the cost overruns were due to "extraordinary circumstances."

Gaetz's plan is a counter-proposal to a measure by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who sought to rein in districts' "excessive" spending and change how charter schools qualify for capital dollars. The House has yet to consider Fresen's plan on the floor.

Gaetz's proposed capital funding reforms are also attached to a different wide-ranging education bill (SB 524) that the Senate postponed for the past three days of session. Indicating that bill might have stalled, Gaetz's re-writes to HB 7029 have included several duplicative policy changes that now appear in both bills.

One high-profile policy change that's not included in HB 7029: enacting in state law the "Best & Brightest" program that awards "highly effective" teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores.

Despite opposition from Republican and Democratic senators who want a floor vote on the issue, House and Senate leaders are poised to extend it another year only through budget language.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Sunday "we are going to agree to fund it at some level."  The exact figure should be revealed Monday when Lee and Land O'Lakes Republican Rep. Richard Corcoran, the House appropriations chairman, announce publicly the differences they've settled in the Legislature's proposed education budget.

March 06, 2016

Lawmakers agree on $75 million each in capital aid for traditional schools, charter schools


Florida's 650 charter schools and 3,600 traditional public schools would each get a pot of $75 million in state funds next year to spend on construction and maintenance projects, under a budget agreement the House and Senate appropriations chairmen announced Sunday afternoon.

The figure -- about the same as what Republican Gov. Rick Scott had asked for -- is $25 million more for each set of schools than lawmakers allocated this year.

It's also a compromise between Republican leaders in the House and Senate from what each chamber originally sought. In their budgets, both the House and Senate wanted to keep capital funding for traditional public schools level at $50 million. For charters, the House wanted $90 million, while the Senate budgeted nothing.

"From our perspective, it was kind of a guiding principle that we ought to be doing for the public system what we're doing for the charter school system, and we ultimately agreed on a level for funding both," Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said.

"The reality is we're up from last year," added House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

The equal funding level is a victory for charter school advocates, who lobbied to get at least as much in capital dollars as traditional schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. Unlike district-run schools, charter schools often lease their facilities, rather than build them.

In a statement this evening, the Florida Charter School Alliance, which represents more than 200,000 students, "thanks the Legislature for the increase of $25 million in dollars to fund the cost of school facilities."

Supporters of conventional public schools are likely to be somewhat disappointed, although they're set to get more money this year than last. They had urged lawmakers to make up for years of reduced funding, when state capital money to charter schools far outweighed what conventional schools received.

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March 04, 2016

Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise


As rank-and-file senators grow more worried that a controversial teacher bonus program could be slipped into the annual budget for the second year in a row, Senate President Andy Gardiner said this evening he endorses that approach as a possible "appropriate" compromise with the House.

"It was in the implementing bill last year. I think it’s an issue that’s very important to the speaker-designate (Rep. Richard Corcoran), and it’s not a new issue," Gardiner, R-Orlando, said of the "Best & Brightest" program that awards bonuses to "highly effective" teachers based on their high school SAT/ACT scores.

"Maybe that’s the compromise -– where instead of codifying it in statute in Senate Bill 524, it’s a one-year implementation," Gardiner said, referencing a massive education bill that includes permanently extending the bonuses.

"I think that might be appropriate, but I’ll leave that to the chairs to see if they want to do that," he said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, are still negotiating the 2016-17 budget in conference committee.

To the frustration of some of his fellow senators (Republicans and Democrats), Lee said earlier this week he "absolutely would" consider extending the teacher bonuses for another year through implementing language -- which was how the program was enacted last year. Lee said Corcoran "deserves some deference" on his priorities, as the Senate does their's.

When asked whether the Senate should grant an up-or-down vote to the controversial policy, Gardiner told reporters: "If it’s in the budget, there will be a floor vote."

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