March 08, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today

@ByKristenMClark

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Florida Supreme Court will start to hear appeals from several death-row inmates, who argue their death sentences are no longer valid because the law that was in effect when they were sentenced has been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.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

@ByKristenMClark

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."

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

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

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@ByKristenMClark

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

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@ByKristenMClark

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

@ByKristenMClark

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.

Continue reading "Lawmakers agree on $75 million each in capital aid for traditional schools, charter schools" »

March 04, 2016

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

Capture@ByKristenMClark

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."

Continue reading "Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise" »

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

Capture@ByKristenMClark

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."

Continue reading "Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise" »

Citing rules issue, Florida Senate declines to take up last-ditch attempt for school recess

@ByKristenMClark

Sorry, recess moms.

For the third time this session, Florida senators have declined to consider a parent-driven proposal to require elementary school recess statewide.

Although the measure passed the House last month by a near-unanimous vote, the bill by Sen. Alan Hays never got a hearing in a Senate committee because education policy committee Chairman Sen. John Legg refused to take it up.

When Hays tried to amend his proposal on to a bill last week in committee, the Umatilla Republican was convinced by his party leaders to withdraw the proposal.

And then again today, his last-ditch attempt was thwarted by the full Senate.

Hays attempted again to amend his proposal on to a wide-ranging education bill (HB 7029) by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville -- this time, using slightly different language. Hays' original bill called for 20 minutes of recess a day, but he tweaked it in the amendment to propose 15 minutes of recess in both the morning and the afternoon.

As Hays' amendment was called up on the floor, Legg immediately called a point of order. (The Trinity Republican has called the recess proposal "a local issue" that doesn't merit a statewide mandate.)

Senate rules prohibit members from considering amendments on the floor that are the substance of a bill stuck in committee, unless two-thirds of the chamber agrees for it to be heard.

When Legg said Hays' amendment was out of order, Hays responded: "Yes, sir. That's why I move we waive the rules!"

Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, agreed with Legg, but because of Hays' request, the decision was left to the full Senate.

The procedural move forced a quorum call to get all available senators back in the chamber.

On a voice vote, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples -- the president pro tempore, who was presiding at the time -- ruled the vote had failed, but some senators wanted a roll call so senators' individual votes could be recorded.

The final tally wasn't even close.

It failed 14-24.

See how each member voted here.

Some senators urge push-back on deals with Florida House

@ByKristenMClark

As the Florida legislative session enters the home-stretch and Republican leaders in both chambers cut deals on key pieces of legislation, some senators are vocally disgruntled that they're being cut out of the process.

A frequent theme on the Senate floor the past couple of days has been push-back from members -- in both parties -- against agreements with the House, such as on fixing Florida's death penalty procedures or over expanding medical marijuana.

On those issues, in particular, some senators have sought amendments to the pending legislation, which were shot down after bill sponsors, in several cases, cited the House's support of the deal on the table.

"We don’t have to yield to the House in any way shape or form," Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, said Thursday during the death penalty debate.

"We don't have to capitulate to the House on this," Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said Friday during the medical marijuana debate.

A short while later on Friday, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, added: "The decisions shouldn't be made between two sponsors, two chairmen or two presiding officers."

The sentiment is resonating in other pending issues, too, such as the controversial "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus plan, which is a priority for the House but which many senators dislike.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Wednesday that he "absolutely would" consider extending the program a year through budget language, even if the Senate doesn't take up a bill that would permanently extend the program.

Lee said House leaders "deserve some deference" on their priority issues, but some Republican and Democratic senators disagree with Lee's position and don't want the Senate to cut a deal.

March 03, 2016

Sen. Hays tries again for mandatory school recess, but he could face procedural hurdles

@ByKristenMClark

Sen. Alan Hays said last week he wasn't giving up on his legislative plan to require Florida public elementary schools to provide 20 minutes of recess a day.

And he's not.

But before the passionate coalition of self-proclaimed "recess moms" across Florida get too excited: It's likely that the Umatilla Republican's latest efforts could be unsuccessful once again.

Hays filed amendments today to two education bills that the Senate could take up as early as Friday.

SB 1166 is one of two wide-ranging education measures sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. Hays last week tried to add his recess plan to it when Gaetz's bill was before the Senate Appropriations Committee; he ultimately withdrew that amendment after talking with Senate leaders that day.

He plans to make another go at it on Friday, though, -- using slightly different language -- when SB 1166 comes up on the Senate's "special order" calendar.

Seemingly as a safeguard, Hays also filed the amendment to HB 7029, a broad and somewhat related education bill that passed the House last month. It's in the Senate's hands now and shares many of the same policies as SB 1166.

(If a Senate bill is significantly similar to a bill the House already passed, the Senate can opt to substitute its pending bill for the House's. That could be what Hays is anticipating for these bills.)

But herein lie the hurdles for Hays:

Senate rules prohibit members from considering amendments on the floor that are the substance of standalone bills stuck in committee. For instance, that rule was invoked earlier today to thwart Gaetz's attempt to tack his controversial open-carry proposal on to a different bill.

It's likely other senators could call such a point of order on Hays' recess amendments on Friday.

Rules Chairman Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said this evening that he hadn't seen Hays' amendments yet, but if there's a conflict, "we'll certainly address that."

If there's no problem there, the other obstacle Hays faces is that Gaetz filed "delete-all" amendments to both SB 1166 (to add some additional provisions) and HB 7029 (to make it identical to SB 1166).

Such strike-all amendments, if approved, negate other proposed amendments that lawmakers may have sought on the original bill. Hays would need to seek to amend Gaetz's amendment -- welcome to legislative procedure -- in order for it to be considered. (As of 7 p.m. today, he hadn't done that.)

The House resoundingly supports mandatory recess, but it's been an uphill battle in the Senate.

The House passed the measure last month, 112-2 -- with only Republican Reps. Richard Corcoran, of Land O’Lakes, and Michael Bileca, of Miami, opposed.

But Hays' bill stalled in the Senate because Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, refused to take it up in the education policy committee.

Legg calls it "a local issue," but passionate "recess moms" are imploring lawmakers to take act. They want a uniform requirement statewide, rather than individual school districts or principals deciding their own policies.

Parents in Miami-Dade County recently launched an online petition urging the school district to "restore recess in our schools." As of this afternoon, it had more than 5,200 signatures.

Much like Gaetz's other big education bill (SB 524), SB 1166 had several amendments filed to it as of this evening besides Gaetz's and Hays' proposed changes.

SB 524 was supposed to be heard Wednesday but has been postponed for the past two days because there's been no time for senators to consider the more than 50 amendments that have been filed to it and its House companion.

Gaetz said this evening that he hopes the Senate will have time to consider at least one of those two large education bills on Friday.