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13 posts from January 24, 2013

January 24, 2013

Bondi, lawmakers take on state's surging foreclosure problem

Lawmakers in Tallahassee are renewing their focus on Florida’s foreclosure problem, after the state ended 2012 as America’s foreclosure capital.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford held a press conference Thursday to discuss a newly approved $60 million program for housing aid.

The program—which includes money for homebuyer assistance, legal aid and foreclosure prevention—is part of last year’s multibillion dollar national settlement that included cash payments to states.

Bondi reached a deal with Weatherford and Gaetz after an initial disagreement over who had authority over the $334 million in funds allocated to Florida. In the end, the groups compromised to allow the Legislature to direct the money during the 2013 legislative session, with $60 million carved out for release prior to the session.

Bondi’s office organized a press conference Thursday to discuss the details of the $60 million program. The deal includes:

  • --$35 million for Down Payment Assistance (Florida Housing Finance Corporation)
  • --$10 million for Foreclosure Counseling (Florida Housing Finance Corporation)
  • --$5 million for Reducing the Foreclosure Backlog  (State Courts System)
  • --$5 million for Legal Aid (Various providers)
  • --$5 million for Attorney General’s Legal Fees (Attorney General’s Office)

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New teacher evaluation system a work in progress, lawmakers say

The much criticized new evaluation model for Florida’s teachers is working in some ways and not in others, members of the House K-12 Subcommittee said today.

Rep. Janet Adkins, the committee chairwoman, said the value-added model system works well when a teacher’s score is directly tied to his or her students’ FCAT scores.

“We’re still quite new at this approach,” said Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach. “I was very impressed with what I saw of the value-added model as it relates to the subjects covered with FCAT, but it’s clear there’s still more work that needs to be done in the other areas.”

For example, teachers at many schools received value-added model scores based on school-wide averages because their students aren’t being tested in a way that can be used to evaluate them. Districts are now in the process of developing new assessments, especially for young students or specialized areas of study.

Adkins says she expects districts to get better at evaluating teachers once those new assessments are implemented. But other members of committees voiced additional concerns.

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Coming attractions: The next battle between Florida and its workers

House Speaker Will Weatherford will battle state workers to get one of his top priorities passed.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has called Florida’s current pension plan a “ticking time bomb” in state finances because he fears it could require a costly tax payer bailout in the future. To prevent that, he says he wants to require new employees, starting on Jan. 1, 2014, to enroll in 401(k)-style accounts rather than rely on getting regular pension payments.

On Thursday, a week after the Florida Supreme Court ruled against state workers and upheld a 3 percent levy on state workers to shore up the pension plan, a retirement reform plan supported by Weatherford was discussed at a House Government Operations Committee workshop.

So far, the draft legislation prevents new employees from joining the pension plan and requires them instead to enroll in a plan in which they direct the investments. It also eliminates an option to apply for disability benefits for new employees, although Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said it will be replaced by another option that has yet to be determined. Many other details still won't be known until a report on the Florida Retirement System and its $125 billion pension plan is completed in the next three to five weeks. 

Participants in the new plan will have more flexibility in deciding their investments, while taxpayers won’t be left on the hook if market conditions change, Brodeur said.

“There will no longer be a blank check written by taxpayers,” he said.

But the changes, as vague as they were, were denounced by representatives for state workers.

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