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.

Florida Senate supports starting 2018 legislative session in January

@ByKristenMClark

Florida senators voted Thursday to start the 2018 legislative session two months early -- in January, as they did this year.

Senators did not debate the measure prior to approving it by a 27-11 vote.

But they had a short discussion Wednesday when Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, questioned the cost of and need for having an earlier session.

"When you’re on spring break with your kids this year, you’ll understand the significance of it," Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said, cracking a smile.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, also noted another benefit of an earlier session. He jokingly inquired about the "average temperature during a regular session."

The House has yet to sign off on moving the start date for the 2018 session.

The Florida Constitution allows the Legislature to start session early in even-numbered years. Otherwise, session begins on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March.

Four Republicans and seven Democrats in the Senate opposed having an earlier start in 2018.

They were: Republicans Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers, Jeff Brandes of St. Betersburg, Denise Grimsley of Sebring, and Jack Latvala of Clearwater, and Democrats Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay, Jeremy Ring of Margate, Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood, Darren Soto of Orlando, and Clemens and Braynon.

Don Gaetz backs off attempt to revive open-carry proposal

@ByKristenMClark

Sen. Don Gaetz today backed down from plans to make a last-ditch effort in getting his open-carry proposal heard this session.

The Niceville Republican had wanted to amend his plan on to a different concealed weapons bill that senators heard on the chamber floor today.

But the attempt was short-lived.

Ever since Gaetz filed the proposed amendment last night, some senators had been coordinating to thwart Gaetz by citing Senate rules.

Heading into the Senate session this morning, Gaetz acknowledged the opposition but said "we'll give it a try."

But when SB 612 came up early this afternoon, Gaetz said he'd been advised by Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, that his amendment was "out of order," because it was the subject of his standalone bill that stalled in committee.

Gaetz said "in deference to Senate rules" he would withdraw the open-carry amendment.

Gaetz's bill -- which would let 1.5 million concealed-weapons permit-holders openly carry handguns in Florida -- cleared the its first committee last fall but then stalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee when Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, refused to take it up.

Diaz de la Portilla's decision to not even consider open-carry sparked anger from Gaetz two weeks ago -- which led to a passionate retort from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, with whom Gaetz has had a long-standing feud.

The Republican-heavy House passed its version of the open-carry bill in February, by a 80-38 vote.

March 02, 2016

'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses face battle in Florida Senate

@ByKristenMClark

A controversial bonus plan that awards "highly effective" teachers based on their ACT/SAT scores faces a tough fight in the Florida Senate -- and that battle is bogging down a massive education bill that Sen. Don Gaetz wants to use as a vehicle to permanently extend the "Best & Brightest" bonuses.

Rank-and-file senators in both parties are, at least, reluctant or, at most, altogether opposed to the program. Echoing other critics, they argue it's not a fair way to reward teachers, since there's no proven correlation between teachers' high school test scores and their ability to be good teachers.

But Senate Republican leaders say they want to make a "good faith effort" to support "Best & Brightest" because it's a priority for House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican who's in line to become House Speaker in November.

"The process works best when we respect each chamber's priorities, as much as we respect our own," Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said this evening.

Gaetz's education bill (SB 524) that includes "Best & Brightest" -- among a dozen other policy proposals -- was scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor today, but dozens of amendments were added to it as late as this morning. Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, asked for his bill to be postponed so senators could digest the myriad proposed changes.

The bill could come back up again as early as Thursday as part of the Senate's "Special Order" calendar.

Among the proposed amendments to SB 524 are efforts by several senators to either strip the "Best & Brightest" bonuses entirely from the bill or, if that fails, significantly change the eligibility criteria, so that teachers could be awarded based on different benchmarks.

Continue reading "'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses face battle in Florida Senate" »

Sen. Don Gaetz wants to revive stalled open-carry proposal through floor amendment

@ByKristenMClark

There's a reason lawmakers are hesitant to declare bills dead until the end of session, because there's a lot of procedural maneuvering that can be done to keep stalled bills alive, or at least out of the grave.

Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz is employing one such tactic to breathe life into his controversial proposal that would let 1.5 million concealed-weapons permit-holders openly carry handguns in Florida.

Gaetz this evening filed an amendment to a different concealed weapons bill, in the hopes of adding his open-carry measure to it.

Gaetz's bill cleared the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last fall but then stalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee when Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, refused to take it up. (Two weeks ago, Diaz de la Portilla's decision sparked anger from Gaetz, which led to a passionate retort from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.)

The bill Gaetz wants to add open-carry to is narrowly titled "an act relating to slungshots." Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, is seeking to remove slungshots from the state's concealed weapons statute.

Hays' bill (SB 612) -- and Gaetz's proposed amendment -- is on the calendar for senators to consider Thursday.