March 11, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Things to watch today in Tallahassee


Let's face it. There's only one thing everyone's really watching for today -- that fun tradition that officially marks the end of the annual legislative session. But first, there is more work for lawmakers to finish.

* At (or after) 2:53 p.m., the House and Senate can vote on the 2016-17 proposed budget. Passing it completes the one obligation lawmakers are constitutionally required to accomplish.

* The Senate could take up the House's counter-offer on a major education bill, but with the clock running out, it's unclear how viable this legislation still is after the House made significant changes to it Thursday evening.

 * When all the work is done, lawmakers will gather in the Capitol rotunda for the hankie drop. Republican Gov. Rick Scott plans to attend.

* Once Sine Die comes, Dr. John Armstrong -- Florida's surgeon general and top health official -- will be unemployed. The Senate declined to confirm his appointment, so Scott will have to name a replacement.

March 10, 2016

Discord over charter school capital funding yields House counter-offer on education bill



Calling it "too much of a nuclear issue," the Florida House on Thursday voted to remove the Senate's proposed reforms for charter school capital funding from a massive education bill that lawmakers are trying to negotiate with a day left in the 2016 session.

Mostly along party-lines, the House approved a 168-page, almost-complete re-write of HB 7029, after the Senate sent over its approved version on Wednesday.

Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen -- who sponsored the re-write -- said the Senate's plans for changing charter school capital funding lacked a reliable, non-political formula, which the House couldn't accept.

Fresen and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, had dueling proposals this session to, in some cases, drastically change charter schools' eligibility for state tax dollars they can use for maintenance and construction projects.

Gaetz's plan, in particular, would have made it more difficult for many charter schools to get capital funding, particularly those run by companies looking to make a profit. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. 

Citing a disagreement with the Senate, Fresen said multiple times on the House floor that he'd removed all capital funding provisions related to charter schools from his re-write of HB 7029.

But that's not entirely so.

While Gaetz's proposal was scrapped, a line of Fresen's own plan was slipped into the latest iteration of the bill.

That change of a single digit could have a significant impact on several charter schools by allowing them to be eligible for capital dollars a full year faster:


Continue reading "Discord over charter school capital funding yields House counter-offer on education bill" »

Florida Legislature approves competency-based education pilot program


Florida lawmakers have approved a new pilot program to test competency-based education at public schools in four Florida counties.

HB 1365 sets up the five-year program starting next school year in Pinellas, Palm Beach, Lake and Seminole counties, as well as at the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott still needs to sign it into law.

The program seeks to let students advance through school if they can prove they've mastered what they should be learning.

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, one of the bill's sponsors, heralds it as "the future of education."

"I’m excited that Florida is taking the first step down that road of competency-based learning," he said.

However, critics fear that the program will "data-mine" students by collecting information on them, while also perpetuating a culture of standardized testing.

"This particular program puts us back into a space that we’re relying on a computer-based test," Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, said. "It sounds great but you have a situation where you have those who can make it and those who cannot because of their inability to function on a computer."

Umatilla Republican Sen. Alan Hays -- who has been outspoken about the state education system's reliance on testing -- also opposed it.

"Many times we’re led into a trap by cute phrases that describe programs that have some underlying issues, and this is no exception to that," Hays said. "You need to watch very carefully the kind of data mining that's done, (and) how much information are they getting on that individual student. Sometimes it's nobody else’s business and certainly not the business of the public."

Several other Democrats said they support the program, because they want to see first whether it works.

"We don’t want unintended consequences, we don’t want children’s privacy invaded, we just want it done right," Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, said.

The bill passed the Senate on Thursday, 31-6. Those who opposed it were Hays, Bullard and Republican Sens. Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach, Rob Bradley of Fleming Island, Charlie Dean of Inverness and Travis Hutson, of Elkton.

It also passed the House last month, 100-13, with some opposition from Democrats.

The Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Florida's Future -- which lobbied for the program -- praised the Legislature for approving HB 1365.

"Rather than tailoring education to meet both the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, we force them to conform to a system in which they all are expected to master the same subjects in the same way and in the same amount of time," foundation executive director Patricia Levesque said in a statement. "Competency-based learning addresses this flaw by allowing students to progress at a personalized pace. ... This customized approach reduces boredom, frustration and failure.”

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee


With less than two days left in the 2016 session, lawmakers are furiously trying to pass policy bills through both chambers before the clock runs out. The Senate again starts daily work at 10 a.m., while the House convenes at noon.

Here's what we're watching today:

* The House and Senate will take questions on their 2016-17 budget proposal, in advance of Friday's expected vote.

* The Senate will take up two environmental bills. SB 1168 implements Amendment 1 (the land and water conservation amendment approved by voters in 2014) and establishes a dedicated funding source for Everglades restoration. The chamber will also take up SB 1290, giving state regulators more flexibility over state lands.

* Gov. Rick Scott must act on more than two dozen bills by today, including allowing disabled vets with identifying license plates to park for free at airports, and removing the term "absentee ballot" from the statutes and replacing it with the term "vote by mail ballot."

* The House could take up a massive education bill that the Senate passed Wednesday.

* The Senate is slated to consider a proposal to allow other standardized exams for K-12 public school students, like the SAT or Advanced Placement courses, as an alternative to the Florida Standards Assessments.

March 09, 2016

Law that helps Miami-Dade schools by fixing tax collection shortfalls heads to Gov. Scott

@ByKristenMClark and @cveiga

A proposed law that cleared the Florida Legislature on Wednesday should give local government entities -- such as Miami-Dade Public Schools -- faster access to their tax revenue and the ability to more accurately plan their annual budgets.

Officials with the Miami-Dade school district have, for years, complained that lengthy delays in tax collection short-change public schools by millions of dollars in funding.

And they finally have a solution that's a step away from becoming law.

HB 499 unanimously passed both the House and Senate on Wednesday and now awaits Republican Gov. Rick Scott's signature.

The measure -- led by Republicans Sen. Anitere Flores, of Miami, and Rep. Bryan Avila, of Hialeah -- reforms statewide the process for resolving property tax disputes, which are heard by county Value Adjustment Boards.

It puts limits on when property owners' appeals need to be resolved, and it requires the boards to complete all appeals and certify property values with the county appraiser no later than June 1.

Flores said the provisions "speed up and modernize that process, so hopefully entities such as our school system and our public school students will receive the money they deserve in a timely matter."

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and other district officials traveled to Tallahassee at least twice this session to testify in favor of the bill when it was vetted by legislative committees.

"We're finally going to have legislative protection that will ensure equity in funding for Miami-Dade's children," Carvalho said Wednesday in Miami.

Carvalho and school board chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman both said they were "appreciative" of Avila, Flores and the rest of the Miami-Dade delegation for navigating the bill through the legislative process. 

"This was a very big priority for the board," Hantman said. 

The district's fight over property tax appeals has been years-long and contentious.

The district audited the local value adjustment board, refused to pay a $1.5 million bill to the property appraiser and threatened to sue over the issue. United Teachers of Dade, the local union, did sue -- but a judge dismissed the complaint.

Carvalho said the district will now pay close attention to how the bill is implemented in Miami-Dade.

"Everything is in place to solve the problem. With every law that's passed in Tallahassee, it is about the execution. And fidelity as far as execution will be key," Carvalho said.

FEA blasts Florida Senate for agreeing to 'Best & Brightest' extension, urges Scott to veto


The state's largest teachers union has some harsh words for the Florida Senate, after Republican leaders agreed this week to compromise with the House and continue funding a controversial teacher bonus program for another year.

"The public should be outraged and Senate leaders should be ashamed," Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall said in a statement today. "This flies in the face of democratic principles."

The final state budget proposal that lawmakers will vote on on Friday includes $49 million in 2016-17 to reward “highly effective” teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores in what's known as the "Best & Brightest" program.

The full Senate has never voted on the policy, although several members wanted that opportunity this session. It's the second year in a row that the bonuses have been authorized solely through budget language.

The Florida Education Association, which represents more than 140,000 teachers and education professionals, has long opposed the program. The union is challenging it, arguing it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.

About 5,200 teachers of the state’s nearly 172,000 teachers qualified this year.

“The Florida Senate is shoving 'Best and Brightest' down our throats,” McCall said. "The point of bills, committees and votes is so that statewide policy that impacts Floridians is thoroughly vetted and transparently scrutinized."

Many Democrats and some Republicans in the Senate had voiced concerns for the past couple weeks, fearing Republican leaders might agree to keep funding "Best & Brightest" although the Senate hadn't approved the policy.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, called the program "the worst and dumbest," and Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said last week Senate leaders' decision “empowers the Senate leadership over the Senate members and it looks like they’re siding with the House members more than Senate members.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, defended the decision, saying the budget process is about negotiation and compromise. He said some of the Senate's priorities were met, so they agreed to support "Best & Brightest" as a priority of the House.

McCall said, "This is not Florida in the sunshine; it is Florida in a smoky back room."

"We hope Gov. Rick Scott will stand up for public education and veto the program when he receives the budget," the FEA said.

Cohabitation could soon be legal again in Florida, as Legislature sends repeal to governor


Florida lawmakers signed off on legislation Wednesday to repeal a 148-year-old law that prohibits unmarried couples from living together.

The Florida House passed the cohabitation repeal bill (SB 498) by a 112-5 vote, sending it to Republican Gov. Rick Scott for his signature. The Senate passed the bill last week unanimously.

Lawmakers have tried in previous years to repeal the law but have been unsuccessful.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Democratic Reps. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, of Tallahassee, and Richard Stark, of Weston, led the charge this year.

The Five Republicans who opposed it on the House floor were: Reps. Janet Adkins of Fernandina Beach, Brad Drake of Eucheeanna, Mike Hill of Pensacola Beach, Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora and Charles Van Zant of Keystone Heights.

Shortly after the vote, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, changed his vote to "no" also, but that doesn't count in the official vote tally.

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.