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April 26, 2019

Florida House passes bill to require school districts to share referendum money with charter schools

Herald file photo
TALLAHASSEE — When voters choose to hike their local property taxes to help schools in their county, that money would need to be shared between districts and charter schools under a bill passed by the Florida House.
The bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Bryan Avila of Hialeah. The late-night debate largely became a South Florida fight as Democrat and Republican representatives from Miami-Dade duked it out on the floor of the House over an ongoing fight happening in Miami that may now have statewide implications.
As the legislative session races to the finish line, the House has been in overtime, and this bill was passed just before midnight Thursday night.
In the 2018 midterm elections, Miami-Dade voters approved a raise in their property taxes for teacher salary raises and school safety measures required in the law passed after the Parkland shooting last year. However, district officials have said they would not be sharing the salary portion — the majority of the funds — with charter schools.
“Whether you’re a charter school teacher or a traditional public school teacher, you’re doing the same thing,” Avila, himself a former charter school teacher, said. “We put in blood, sweat and tears, we care for our kids. So when a school district says, ‘We’re going to have a levy but these public (charter) school teachers need to be excluded?’ I think that’s not only wrong, I think it’s immoral.”
Charter schools are publicly funded schools operated by private entities, and are defined as public schools under Florida law.
Avila said Miami-Dade’s ballot language proposing the increased property tax was “as vague as possible," and he accused the district of intentionally being unclear on whether charter schools would get a cut of the funds until after the referendum passed.
Democratic Rep. Dotie Joseph, also of Miami, said this bill is “smoke and mirrors” simply because Republicans didn’t like how districts are using their discretionary spending when they raise local money to go above inadequate state funds.
“We try to play like the voters don’t know what they’re doing. They know absolutely what they’re doing,” she said. “What happened here was simple: Tallahassee failed us so we took matters into our own hands at the local level.”
The presidents of both the statewide teachers’ union and the Miami-Dade teachers’ union held a news conference earlier this week at the Florida Capitol where they protested this bill and said lawmakers were usurping the will of the voters.
“Some of our educators already started to receive some of this (referendum) funding with the negotiations we finished in January, so now if you’re putting this in place, you’re creating a big dilemma for us,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, the United Teachers of Dade union president. “We had over 71 percent of the community said yes ... when they voted, they knew they were voting for our public schools.”
Beyond the fight in Miami, Avila also pointed out an ongoing lawsuit in Palm Beach County over this exact issue, which he said proves the point that greater “clarity” is needed in the law to settle that districts must share their funds.
Around 20 school districts in the state have reaped the benefits of voter-approved increases to local property taxes, including Pinellas.
Pinellas most recently passed its special property tax in 2016, with 76 percent of the vote. It generates about $40 million a year, of which 80 percent goes toward teacher salaries.
As in Miami, the revenue already has been figured into the latest teacher contract, with $4,188 in referendum dollars going into each Pinellas teacher’s salary.
In addition to the piece about school funding, House Bill 7123, the House’s tax package, also would significantly reduce the state’s commercial lease tax and set dates for this year’s sales-tax-free shopping days for back-to-school season and hurricane preparedness.
There is currently no similar language related to referendum money in the Florida Senate, though that is fairly typical for this point in the process when dealing with tax bills. It’s unclear so far whether the Senate will take up a similar idea.

April 25, 2019

FL Senate gives hemp program the green light


With little discussion and rousing support, the Florida Senate unanimously approved a bill to create a state hemp program Thursday. 

"This may be one of the most significant things we do this session," said bill sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley during the afternoon's floor session.

The Fleming Island Republican’s SB 1020 authorizes the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to administer a state hemp program and sets up rulemaking and a board of experts to develop the system. 

Hemp, a form of the cannabis plant, contains only trace amounts of THC — the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high — and uses less water and fertilizer to grow. Hemp has been cultivated for approximately 10,000 years, according to the University of Florida’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Project, and can be used for fiber, building materials, animal feed and pain relief.

The 2018 Farm Bill allows a state department of agriculture to submit a plan to the United States Secretary of Agriculture and apply for primary regulatory authority over the production of hemp in their state. The plan, which is required under Bradley’s bill, must include a procedure for tracking land upon which hemp will be produced as well as testing, disposal, enforcement, inspection and certification procedures.

The bill doesn’t allow for Floridians to grow hemp for individual use, which is also not allowed under the federal farm bill.

Bradley’s bill also authorizes the department to oversee the development of pilot projects for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at UF, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and any university in the state that has an agriculture program.

"This could be and will be game-changing for the agriculture community," he said. 

The House version of the bill was read on the floor Tuesday, but has not yet been voted on.  

House, Senate promise dollars for Pulse memorial after early budget snub


After funding for a permanent memorial in honor of the 49 victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando came out to $0 on the budget proposals Wednesday morning, the House and Senate changed course.

The Senate put forth a proposed $500,000 for the memorial, and late Wednesday night House Speaker José Oliva said he's willing to make the effort as well.

"We are open [to funding the Pulse memorial]," the Miami Lakes Republican said. "We expect that there will be funding.”

The House matched the Senate's $500,000 in their proposal Thursday afternoon.

There is currently an interim memorial at the nightclub, with an offering wall, ribbon wall of photographs, a modest green space and a place on the original sign for the Pulse nightclub for visitors to write a message.

The onePULSE Foundation, a non-profit started by Pulse Nightclub owner Barbara Poma, has hosted an international design competition for the permanent memorial and museum. According to the group's website, a winner will be picked this summer.

Three years later, the project has yet to receive state funding.

Sen. Linda Stewart, who sponsored the request for Pulse funding on the Senate side, said she'll remain "steadfast" in bringing the memorial to her community.

"I have been diligently working to secure funding for a permanent memorial to the victims and families of this community," the Orlando Democrat said. "As long as I am the Senator of this district, I will continue to fight for the reverence of those affected by the horrific tragedy that occurred on June 12, 2016, at the Pulse Nightclub."

Last year when the Legislature passed a package to address school safety in wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the package included $1 million for a permanent memorial to the 17 victims at the high school in northwestern Broward County.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, proposed an amendment then that would include $1 million for a Pulse memorial, which did not pass. He said Thursday that the investment is a "tremendous step" toward fully funding the project to be on par with Parkland's memorial 

“Our budget chairs have listened to us in our sincere and authentic attempt to secure funding for the Pulse Memorial and should be applauded," he said. "

Rep. Anna Eskamani, who serves on the conference committee that takes up arts funding, said she was troubled by the disparity in funding between Parkland and Pulse. On Thursday, she said she was pleased with the quick response.

"I am thrilled to see our Speaker of the House — alongside both budget chairs — see the value and importance of supporting the creation of a permanent Pulse memorial in Orlando," Eskamani, D-Orlando, said. "We will continue to watch the budget proposal closely to ensure that we make it to the finish line."

Florida House Democrats pick their next leaders

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Florida House Democrats have chosen their leaders for the next two election cycles through 2024, settling the chain of succession for much of the foreseeable future as party members acknowledge they must win more seats to hold meaningful power in the Republican-controlled chamber.
Caucus members elevated Reps. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale and Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach to lead them starting in 2020, after they pitched an unusual agreement to split policy and campaign responsibilities among the two lawmakers after Leader Kionne McGhee’s term ends in a year and a half. The caucus also voted for Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, to take over the leadership in 2022.
Read more at the Miami Herald.
Image: Reps. Bobby DuBose and Evan Jenne, via Florida House

April 24, 2019

In healthcare budget talks, lawmakers look toward compromise on hospitals' Medicaid funding


The Florida House advanced its first counteroffer on how to reimburse hospitals for Medicaid cases late Wednesday night, suggesting that it and the state Senate were moving toward a potential compromise on one of the thorniest disputes between the chambers sooner than expected.

During a joint conference of some of the Legislature’s lawmakers on the state’s health care budget, leaders announced that the House, which had advanced a plan to trim inpatient and outpatient payments to hospitals for Medicaid cases, was offering to roll back the proposed 3 percent cut to the state’s overall hospital Medicaid funding. The offer would also funnel about $24.7 million of the $318 million currently earmarked for hospitals with the highest Medicaid caseloads into base rates for all of the state’s hospitals instead.

"We're trying to get together and unite to make sure to spread [expenses] around the right way,” said Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, who is leading the health care budget conference committee with Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach. “We understand everything is a negotiation and eventually we'll get in the right place."

The state currently compensates all hospitals for Medicaid care at a certain base rate, which is outpaced by the Medicare rate or that of most private payers. But hospitals with the highest percentages of patients on Medicaid can unlock part of the additional $318 million in "automatic rate enhancements,” which are added on to the general funding they and other hospitals already receive. Those two dozen or so hospitals include some of the state's largest safety-net hospitals, including Jackson Health in Miami-Dade, which is the state's biggest individual Medicaid provider.

The House had initially proposed trimming hospital Medicaid reimbursement spending by 3 percent in both inpatient and outpatient care, or about $110 million. The Senate, however, had proposed reshuffling the additional Medicaid “enhancement” payments into the base rates paid to all hospitals, with the overall amount of money the state would pay for Medicaid reimbursements would remain the same.

Proponents of the Senate plan have said bolstering the base rate funding would mean money more fairly “follows the patient” — but safety-net hospitals, which have labeled the enhancements a “critical care fund” say the tiered structure is needed because  those hospitals with high Medicaid caseloads disproportionately handle more complex, critical cases.

The issue is far from resolved. A host of other changes outlined in language attached to the budget have yet to be formally negotiated on, and some of that wording includes specifics on how the base rate funding for hospitals would be weighted to reimburse more complicated, complex medical cases.

Magar said both she and Bean hoped to discuss offers on that language Thursday.

But the two leaders did also move closer on how to fund gaps at the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which has struggled with deficits in the last few years. Both chambers also made progress on determining how much to appropriate to scores of local projects that are funded by the six agencies that fall under their purview: the state Agency for Health Care Administration, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, the Department of Children and Families, Department of Health, Department of Elder Affairs and Veterans’ Affairs.

For session to end on time next week, lawmakers must reach agreement on all issues by April 30, so the budget can sit for a required 72 hours before the full chambers vote on the package by May 3.

Image: Rep. MaryLynn Magar, via Florida House

Citing immediate Parkland response, lawmakers ask why Pulse memorial still lacks dollars


As budget negotiations ramp up this week — the penultimate week of the legislative session — lawmakers are taking a closer look at appropriations for both statewide initiatives and local projects in their home communities.

One line in the budget caught the eye of Orlando lawmakers, who noted that funding for a permanent memorial in honor of the 49 victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando had evaporated.

The memorial originally got $245,000 in the Senate budget, but on Wednesday's conference committee the number was down to $0. 

Last year when the Legislature passed a package to address school safety in wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the package included $1 million for a permanent memorial to the 17 victims at the high school in northwestern Broward County.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, proposed an amendment then that would include $1 million for a Pulse memorial, which did not pass. He said this year he is hopeful that they can secure some funding, based on conversations he's had with budget leaders. 

"Pulse was the worst mass shooting in the history of Florida .. our 49 angels deserve to be memorialized with a safe space for their families to heal and for future generations to learn," Smith said. "The fact that the Pulse line item is even on the budget shows that there was interest."

There is currently an interim memorial at the nightclub, with an offering wall, ribbon wall of photographs, a modest green space and a place on the original sign for the Pulse nightclub for visitors to write a message.

The onePULSE Foundation, a non-profit started by Pulse Nightclub owner Barbara Poma, has hosted an international design competition for the permanent memorial and museum. According to the group's website, a winner will be picked this summer.

Smith noted that the ask for Pulse is much less than the percentage of what was funded for memorials commemorating the Oklahoma City bombings or the 9/11 memorial in New York City. 

"What's important to understand is there is a precedent for state governments funding memorials or museums after an act of terror," he said.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she was troubled by the disparity in funding between Parkland and Pulse. 

"The fact that we immediately supported a memorial but did not take that type of action when 49 mostly queer, black and brown people were killed at Pulse is disheartening and disappointing," Eskamani said. "We have the opportunity to get this right."
Eskamani, who has also had conversations with both House and Senate budget chairs, said the funding is "on their radar." She said she's pushing to at least get the original $245,000 appropriation from the Senate budget. 
"It's not the full amount, but it is something," she said. "I feel good about it." 

South Florida Democrats are not lining up to impeach Trump after Mueller report

Frederica Wilson 2


President Donald Trump’s tweet calling Miami Rep. Frederica Wilson “wacky” was once seen as justification for impeachment. 

The 2017 resolution by Texas Rep. Al Green argued that Trump “harmed the society of the United States” by calling white supremacists “very fine people” while name-calling members of Congress on Twitter, and 58 Democrats, including Wilson, voted to keep the resolution on the table against the objections of party leaders.

But 16 months later, days after Robert Mueller’s redacted 448 page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential obstruction by the president was released, the number of Democrats in Congress backing impeachment can be counted on two hands.

Wilson herself isn’t on board.

“As damning as the Mueller report is, I think that Democrats should let history be our guide,” Wilson said. “When Congress impeached President Bill Clinton, his job approval rating rose while the House suffered historic losses. We need to be on a much more solid ground before we can convince the American public, including Democrats, that Mr. Trump should be impeached.”

Wilson’s argument is that Democrats must build their own case to potentially impeach or exonerate Trump through hearings and additional documents, a sentiment shared by every South Florida Democrat in the House, where impeachment proceedings must begin.

“Nothing changed,” Rep. Donna Shalala said, adding that she read the report in its entirety in recent days. “I think we are a ways away from making a decision on impeachment. This report for the administration I think describes a kind of chaos that we have come to expect with the White House, but Mueller laid out very carefully the obstruction charge. He didn’t charge the president. He was very respectful of the Justice Department’s opinion that you could not indict a sitting president.”

More here.

April 22, 2019

A key 2020 constituency: Florida’s Hispanic vote nearly doubled in 2018



Florida’s Hispanic electorate grew by 81 percent between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, and Hispanics who registered to vote as independents grew by 101 percent, meaning Hispanics are the fastest-growing portion of Florida’s electorate heading into the 2020 election.

The Hispanic-specific data, compiled by Univision and Political Data Inc., shows that campaigns and candidates who make early investments in Spanish-language media and advertising efforts are reaching more potential voters in Florida than ever before. Hispanic voter registration and turnout trends in Miami-Dade County, home to 44 percent of the state’s Hispanic electorate in 2018, mirrored statewide trends.

“This data demonstrates that our community, especially its younger members, played a crucial role in the 2018 election where the Senate seat and various congressional seats in Florida changed parties less than a year ago,” Univision CEO Vincent Sadusky said in a statement. “2020 is shaping up to be an especially competitive election and, particularly in many large states including Florida with significant Latino populations, we have no doubt Hispanic America will play a key role in picking the next president and which party controls Congress.”

Univision will present Hispanic voter data from multiple states in an April 30 event in Washington.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott focused heavily on Hispanic voters in his successful 2018 campaign, spending millions to run Spanish-language ads during major events like the 2018 FIFA World Cup and touting his visits to Puerto Rico throughout the campaign. The Spanish-language TV campaigning, combined with an anti-socialism message in South Florida, helped Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis win narrow victories over Democrats.

More here.

April 19, 2019

FL House and Senate down on energy choice ballot initiative


In filings to the state Supreme Court late Thursday, both the Florida House and Senate said they oppose the petition-driven ballot initiative that would reform how consumers purchase electricity in Florida.

The proposal, put forward by the Citizens for Energy Choices political committee, calls for the customers’ “right to choose” and would loosen the grip of private utility monopolies like Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power, Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Co. It would allow customers to pick their electricity providers from a competitive market or give them more options to produce solar energy themselves.

Attorneys for the House wrote that the initiative would have a "deleterious effect" and they consider this change to the state's constitution an "abuse of the initiative process." 

They wrote that instead of altering the state's constitutional language, this proposal essentially aims to legislate by amendment. 

"The current initiative proposes to add what essentially is a legislative policy to the Constitution—rather than address a structural or rights feature of the current charter," they wrote. 

Senate President Bill Galvano argued that the initiative violates the single-subject rule found in the state's constitution, which allows voters to know what an amendment does and how it will affect the Constitution.

He wrote that if passed, the amendment would "dramatically affect" the functions of multiple branches and levels of government, and would force voters to choose among numerous different policy choices.

Galvano also took issue with the ballot summary and language, which he said fails to touch upon the "sweeping effects" it would have. He also added that if passed, the language would require the Legislature to "upend the entire electric utility regulatory framework."

The language aims to protect customers against deceptive or unfair practices and establish an independent market to make energy sales competitive, the Alachua-based committee says.

Last month Attorney General Ashley Moody weighed in against the amendment, describing it as a veiled attempt to “eliminate” the state’s investor-owned utilities, such as Florida Power & Light.

Although it sells itself as a pro-consumer choice measure, Moody wrote that the amendment’s “undisclosed chief purpose” is actually the opposite.

The amendment’s language, she argued, requires creating a law “prohibiting investor-owned utilities from owning, operating, or even leasing any facilities which generate electricity.”

The result, she wrote, would prevent those utilities from competing in the new electric utility market.

“The title and this statement give the misleading impression that investor-owned utilities would still be able to sell electricity to customers, competing with additional, new providers,” Moody wrote. “But the actual text of the amendment forbids such activity.”

Several other groups have filed petitions in opposition to the proposal, including investor-owned utility companies, municipal electric groups and electric cooperatives. 

The petitions come at a time when several bills by Republicans are moving through the Legislature to significantly alter the amendment process. One bill makes it far more difficult to gather the signatures needed to get constitutional amendments before Florida voters. Another bill would raise the vote threshold for an amendment's passage from 60 percent to two-thirds. A third bill aims to abolish the Constitution Revision Commission, a 37-member body that meets every 20 years to review and proposes changes to the state constitution.

The fight has turned into a partisan one, as progressives locked out of power in Tallahassee over the last 20 years have seen their policies passed by voters who approved amendments like protecting environmental lands and restoring voting rights to felons.

Alex Patton, chairman of Citizens for Energy Choices, said his group has "far more respect" for voters than utilities and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, who have lobbied heavily against the proposal and in favor of legislation to limit the process.

He said while he can't comment on the specific briefs, the committee is confident in their legal footing and look forward to having their day in court.

"I do hope I at least receive a thank-you card from all the white-shoe firms hired by the utilities and their political buddies for their increase in billable hours," Patton said in a text message. "Truly unprecedented." 

Oral arguments on the proposal are currently scheduled for Aug. 28, 2019.

April 18, 2019

'The hemp industry is waiting': State hemp program bill readies for House floor


Without much conversation and a brief, unanimous vote, a House panel voted Thursday to send a bill that would create a state hemp program to the chamber floor. 

The bill, put forward by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, would authorize the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to administer a state hemp program and make the plant an agricultural option for farmers across the state.

Hemp, a form of the cannabis plant, contains only trace amounts of THC — the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high. In 2014, the federal government authorized a state department or university to conduct a hemp pilot program. In 2017, Florida created one. Under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was cleared to become an agricutlural crop under a state-authorized program, which the bill aims to create. 

A similar version of the bill in the Senate has also passed all of its committees.

The state will then have to submit the plan to the United States Department of Agriculture and apply for primary regulatory authority over the production of hemp. The plan has to include testing procedures, certification methods, inspection plans and corrective actions for farmers who may be in violation. 

At the House State Affairs committee Thursday morning, bill sponsor Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican, compared the burgeoning hemp industry to a tech boom. He said young people will become the next Steve Jobs, and that new hemp products will soon be as ubiquitous as the iPhone. 

"It will provide jobs not only in the industry, but for the young people today who need to learn a new career," he said.

According to the bill's staff analysis, at least 30 countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America currently permit farmers to grow hemp. In the U.S., hemp market is largely dependent on imports.

If passed, the state hemp program will set up rulemaking and a board of experts to help develop the system in the state. The idea is modeled closely after what Kentucky has done to revitalize farmland once used by the tobacco industry. Researchers have since said that hemp is proving successful at adapting to Florida’s growing conditions, which vary dramatically across the state. A staff analysis of the bill said Florida farmers will likely benefit economically by the opportunity to plant, process and sell hemp and hemp-based products.

"Very rarely do we have a bill that has such a broad influence on the people of Florida," Massullo said. "The hemp industry is waiting for someone to develop. The uses of hemp are myriad."