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A divided Miami-Dade delegation agrees to push for county charter change next year

The Miami-Dade legislative delegation will make it a priority for next year's session to change the county's charter to give lawmakers more power.

A majority of delegation members voted Monday morning to push for Miami-Dade legislators to place charter amendments directly on the county ballot. Currently, only county commissioners or citizens collecting petition signatures can place questions on the ballot.

The Florida Senate killed the measure during session earlier this year. Leading the opposition was Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who was not at Monday's delegation meeting. (Neither were other members of the group.)

The measure's proponents, Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami and the delegation's chairman, and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, told their colleagues that the change would give residents another way to push for charter reforms.

"Why are we so scared to give the voters a shot?" Garcia said.

A divided delegation voted 11-7 to make the issue a priority. All the Democrats present voted against the proposal except Rep. Luis Garcia, who announced last month that he is running for U.S. Congress.

Votes on the other legislative priorities -- on issues regarding property taxes, insurance and mortgage fraud reform -- were unanimous.

Lawmakers also spent hours hearing from elected officials, institutional leaders and community organizations updating them on their issues and asking for funding.

The president of Florida International University was concerned the school would not have enough money from the state to build new facilities for more students. A judge speaking for the courts warned about the increasing workload of county judges. The public defender lamented that scores of people plead guilty in court without having access to a lawyer.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado touted that the city plans to reduce its property-tax rate -- but asked for help so the city can provide more social services. Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho boasted that the school system is running smoothly -- "Today we stand as the highest-performing urban school district in America," he said -- while urging lawmakers to restructure how the state funds public education.

Speakers thanked legislators for their help in Tallahassee -- something that got old quickly for Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston. "I personally came here to listen to the needs out there, what is still going on," she said. "I appreciate the thank yous, but I really want to hear what is happening as a result of what was done."

She didn't have to wait long to get her wish. Patricia Robbins of Farm Share, a food bank, told the delegation that people would go hungry because Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $750,000 that had been set aside in the state budget for the program.

"We are not a turkey," she said, referring to Tallahassee-speak for a lawmaker's pet project. "We serve all of Miami-Dade County."

Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisled had pushed for Farm Share to get state money. "We were as surprised by this veto as you were," Lopez-Cantera said.