A controversial proposal aimed at curtailing lawsuits against the state by the Florida School Boards Association is back for the 2016 session and is starting to move through both chambers of the Florida Legislature.
House Bill 1155/Senate Bill 1426 prohibit membership groups -- namely, the FSBA -- from using public dollars to sue the state, a move that critics argue could have a chilling effect on the group's ability to challenge laws and programs its members feel are unconstitutional.
Both bills -- which passed their first House and Senate committees on Tuesday -- refer broadly to "membership associations" that receive taxpayer dollars, but the hearings in both chambers focused almost solely on the school board association and its recent participation in a lawsuit challenging a voucher-like state program that helps children from low-income families afford private school.
The FSBA had joined the legal fight against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships but later withdrew. The Florida Education Association is still fighting that case.
State lawmakers' attempt to rein in the FSBA originated last year in the midst of that lawsuit. Last session, legislation passed the House overwhelmingly, but it never got a floor vote in the Senate.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is sponsoring this year's Senate version and she told senators it's been narrowly tailored so it "only applies to, for the most part, the school board association."
She said the FSBA has a "large public interest," which means it should be scrutinized as a "quasi-public organization."
"With the amount of dollars they’re receiving from our public funds, we need to have that amount of accountability," she said.
Republicans in the House and Senate on Tuesday hailed the proposal as a measure of accountability and an effort to safeguard state tax dollars.
"I say, 'What's not to like about this?' " Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood said.
"It empowers school board members and it ensures taxpayers are protected," agreed Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.
Aside from the restrictions on using dollars to fund lawsuits, the legislation requires an annual state audit and an annual financial report to the Legislature detailing information such as: membership dues, finances, debt, staff salaries, benefits and expenses, lobbying activity and litigation costs.
The House K-12 Subcommittee endorsed the the proposal by an 8-4 partyline vote, with the panel's Democrats opposed it. Around the same time, the Senate Community Affairs Committee also advanced that chamber's bill by a 6-2 vote.
The bill also makes it optional for members to join associations that receive tax dollars -- giving school boards, for instance, the option to opt out of the FSBA.
That provision, in particular, is pleasing to the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a separate group from the school boards association that was formed last year and whose members embrace conservative principles.
Coalition President Jeff Bergosh, an Escambia County school board member, said some school board members' voices are "shut out" when the FSBA acts on behalf of the majority of its members.
"There’s a great number of school board members whose voices get quashed every year," Bergosh told senators. "I don’t want my dollars going to an organization that sues you after you duly enact legislation."
Republicans -- including House sponsor Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando -- reject critics' claims the legislation would quash an organization's right to sue. They said member associations could instead seek private dollars to fund their lawsuits.
"It doesn’t remove the prerogative of organization to sue anyone," said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, who spearhead the House legislation last year. "It simply states that tax dollars shouldn’t be recycled to be used against the same people it was collected from."
But Democrats and the FSBA question why the advocacy organization for elected school boards is being singled out and why state lawmakers feel the need to dictate what the organization does and how it does it.
"If all non-profits have that ability (to sue the state), we should all have that ability. One non-profit shouldn’t be treated differently than others," FSBA executive director Andrea Messina told the Senate committee.
Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura -- a former mayor of North Bay Village -- called it "unduly restrictive" to local elected officials.
"It seems to me that if somebody who’s been elected by the public to serve at the school board level … thinks that their duty is to disagree or contest something and they think that’s in the best interest of the parents and the children of their district, we shouldn’t be telling them, 'No, they can’t,' " Geller said.
Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, agreed during the Senate hearing.
"If it’s a membership decision as to what the dues are and how the dues are supposed to be used, I don’t see why we, as legislators, come back and place restrictions on how those funds can be used," she said.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the bill, for him, was about ensuring courts don't decide public policy, which the Legislature is empowered to do.
"This bill is about ensuring that debate happens here, and we don't create that financing of litigation," said Bradley, calling Stargel's and Eisnaugle's legislation "one of my favorite bills of session."
Both the House and Senate bills have two more committee stops in each chamber before they could go to the House and Senate floors.