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9 posts from February 19, 2013

February 19, 2013

Back to drawing board for domestic partnership bill

Vowing not to give up, Democratic state Sen. Eleanor Sobel delayed a committee vote of a domestic partnership bill that looked unlikely to pass and still faces long odds.
The bill, which Sobel has been trying to pass for five years, would have extended rights of married couples in areas such as health benefits, hospital visitation and medical decision-making to non-married couples.
“This is an issue that affects hundreds of thousands of Floridians,” said Nadine Smith of Tampa, who is the executive director of the advocacy group Equality Florida.

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Senate readies ethics bill for floor vote after delaying 'revolving door' restrictions

A Senate committee unanimously approved an ambitious ethics bill Tuesday and set it up to be the first bill voted out of the Florida Senate but only after it exempted current lawmakers from the "revolving door" limits on lobbying the governor and his agencies.

The Senate Rules Committee unanimously approved SB 2, the top priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, which imposes tougher ethics rules on legislators and local officials. The vote came after the committee also approved, without discussion, an amendment to delay a proposal in the bill that would have required legislators who retire to wait two years before they enter into lucrative executive branch lobbying contracts.

The amendment by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, postpones the two-year ban on legislators becoming executive branch lobbyists until after 2014. The change gives legislators who retire after this two-year term the opportunity to immediately join the ranks of the revolving door class. 

A Herald/Times report found that there are more lobbyists registered to lobby the governor and his agencies than there are to lobby the legislature as a cottage industry has sprung up around the massive outsourcing of contracts in the state budget. Former House Speaker Dean Cannon is among the most recent who have gone to work as an executive branch lobbyist, a practice Latvala called a "revolving door" that his bill was designed to stop.

Current law require legislators to wait two years after they retire before they can return to lobby the legislature but there are no restrictions on lobbying the executive branch.

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Dept. of Make Nice: Presient Obama calls Sens. Rubio, McCain and Graham

The (kabuki-like?) tensions between President Obama and Sen. Marco Rubio over immigration reform started to abate Tuesday afternoon when the commander in chief called the Florida Republican as well as Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain.

Rubio over the weekend bashed the White House for, in his view, leaking draft immigration-reform legislation to USA Today. The White House insisted it didn't. The Herald published the text of the legislation in this story which has the background over the back and forth.

Here's the White House statement:

This afternoon, the President placed calls to Senator Graham, Senator McCain, and Senator Rubio to discuss their shared commitment to bipartisan, commonsense immigration reform and to commend the Senators for the bipartisan progress that continues to be made by the Gang of 8 on this important issue. During the calls, which build on conversations that have taken place at the staff level, the President reiterated that he remains supportive of the effort underway in Congress, and that he hopes that they can produce a bill as soon as possible that reflects shared core principles on reform. The President has made clear that he believes commonsense reform needs to include strengthening border security, creating an earned path to citizenship, holding employers accountable, and streamlining legal immigration. As the President made clear when he met with Democratic Senators involved in the process last week, that while he is pleased with the progress and supportive of the effort to date, he is prepared to submit his own legislation if Congress fails to act.  He thanked the Senators for their leadership, and made clear that he and his staff look forward to continuing to work together with their teams to achieve needed reform.

The President did not speak with Senator Flake, who is traveling, but he looks forward to discussing the issue with him in the near future.

Senate Democrats concede they can't stop parent trigger this year

Senate Democrats conceded Tuesday they don't have the votes to stop one of the most controversial issues of last year's session, the so-called parent trigger bill that will allow parents of a failing school to open the door for a for-profit charter management company to take over.

Working with a coalition of moderate Republicans, Democrats last year mounted opposition to the bill that passed the House and killed it on a 20-20 vote in the Senate on the last day of session. With the turnover of the Senate in 2012, however, several of the newcomers appear to be sympathetic to the proposal, said Senate Democratic Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauerdale, at a meeting of the caucus on Tuesday.

"They have picked up enough votes so this year may be one of those years where we at least make an awful bill a bit better,'' Smith told his Democratic colleagues.

Among the newcomers is Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who has filed SB 862 to allow a majority of parents in a failing public school in Florida to restructure the school. The parents options include replacing the principal; replacing staff and administration; converting to a charter school; or closing the school and turning it over to a private charter school managment companies.

The measure is backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush. California was the first state to approve the law, and other states have adopted similar legislation since then.

Democrats uniformly oppose the measure because they believe it is being pushed by the for-profit charter school industry to take over public schools, removing existing administrators and replacing teachers with non-union employees. 

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, suggested that there are higher priorities for the legislature to focus this session and that public schools have enough on their plates. She noted that with changes relating to teacher tenure, the implementation of core curriculum, and the elimination of the FCAT, "the whole public education system is currently under turmoil,'' she said. "Slow it down. We don’t need this trigger bill right now."

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who is head of the Florida Superintendents Association, suggested the numbers don't look for stopping the bill.

"I don’t think we can win or lose this one on the merits of the argument,'' Monford said. "We win on the merits...We have to look at who has been added to the legisl and where they are and we need a strategic plan."


New 'Smart Justice' bill would offer treatment for drug offenders

A new proposal announced Tuesday—dubbed “Smart Justice”—would change the way Florida deals with non-violent drug offenders.

The bill seeks to reduce recidivism by redirecting some non-violent offenders from high-security prison into re-entry and drug treatment programs.

“It’s time that we change the way we’re doing business,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, who is co-sponsoring the measure. “We’re in the modern days, the 21st century. But in many ways our criminal justice system is still in the Middle Ages.”

Inmates in the last three years of their sentences would be potentially eligible for the program. New “Correctional Re-entry Treatment Facilities” would be created—and run by private providers—to take in the non-violent offenders.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who chairs the House’s Judiciary Committee, is also sponsoring the measure. He said it would help reduce recidivism in Florida’s prison system.

“The ideas contained in this legislation will make a meaningful difference,” Baxley said in a statement. “Not just in the lives of offenders, but more importantly in the lives of Floridians who might otherwise become their future crime victims.”

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Digital learning bills would expand reach to non-public school students in Florida

There's a move afoot in the Florida Legislature to expand access to the state's virtual schooling options, similar to efforts that were tried and failed in several past years.

The House Education Choice and Innovation Subcommittee is proposing a bill on digital education that would, among other things, require the state to fund the virtual courses taken by any home schooled students who are registered in their districts as home schoolers. It sounds innocuous enough. But the change would open the door to thousands of students who have never enrolled in a public school, something the Legislature has balked against before.

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Senators take field trip to voting equipment center


State senators went on an unusual two-hour field trip Tuesday to check out the internal workings of a voting equipment center in Tallahassee where ballots are cast and counted. The site visit by members of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee was hosted by Ion Sancho, the long-time Leon County elections supervisor who has been an outspoken critic of Republican-backed changes to state election laws.

Leon is one of the state's most heavily Democratic counties and consistently ranks among the highest counties for voter turnout. With about 191,000 voters, it's a medium-sized county with just one city, and it's also a college town, with two large state universities. 

Directing the tour was the committee chairman, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who has toured his hometown elections operation in Pinellas but who wanted to give other senators a chance the learning experience of seeing a voting center from the inside.

Latvala said he would like to find a way to reduce the chances of absentee ballots being tossed out because of non-matching signatures, which he said could be helped if elections offices could use a more recent signature on file from a precinct register rather than a voter registration form that might be decades old. "The example they showed us today was a lady who registered to vote in 1974. That's almost 40 years ago. Her signature was not the same in '74 as it is now, and I bet mine's not, either," Latvala said. "It's just a learning experience."

There was one minor partisan skirmish when Latvala noted that of about 1,100 provisional ballots cast in Leon County last fall, about 400 were tossed out for various problems, such as voters lacking identification. "That's why we have that law," Latvala said, referring to the 2011 change requiring people to vote provisionally if they moved from another county.

"That's not correct. We had a law for 40 years that worked fine," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, referring to the old law that allowed voters to update their addresses at the polls when they voted.          

Sancho runs a highly professional operation and has held office since 1989. He told senators the horrifying experience of the 1992 election when he decided to use an automatic letter opener to open 22,000 absentee ballot envelopes,a process that damaged the ballots just enough so that every one of them had to be duplicated by hand. "We learned from our mistakes," Sancho said.  

-- Steve Bousquet

Veteran health care lobbyist Ralph Glatfelter dies

Funeral services for longtime lobbyist Ralph Glatfelter will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Bradfordville Baptist Church in Tallahassee.

Glatfelter, 65 died Sunday, Feb. 17 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.  For 35 years he worked on health care issues, primarily for the Florida Hospital Association.

A native of Zellwood and a graduate of the University of Florida, Glatfelter was active in student government and after college went to work for Attorney General Bob Shevin in his legislative affairs office.

In 1983 he joined the Florida League of Hospitals where he became president and CEO. He joined the Hospital Association when three state hospital associations merged. He is survived by his wife, Sharon “Sukie” McAllister Glatfelter, a longtime House staffer. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Florida Baptist Children’s Home or Ami Training Center, 1021 Maxwell Mill Rd, Suite B, Fort Mill, SC 29708 or a favorite charity.

Culley’s MeadowWood Funeral home is in charge of arrangements.

-- Lucy Morgan


Rick Scott's first job creator, Vision Airlines, charged with grand theft

It was one of the first big job announcements of Gov. Rick Scott's administration: Vision Airlines was bringing a hub to the Panhandle, promising 4,200 "direct and indirect" jobs to the region.

 "This is going to be fun. This is our chance. We are going to win," Scott said at a Jan. 18, 2011, event, promoting the economic benefits Vision Airlines would bring.

 It didn't quite work out that way. 

The airline abandoned its flights to Fort Walton Beach in less than two years. It also, local officials say, abandoned its contractual obligations to the area. 

In December, county commissioners sued the company for nearly $150,000 in unpaid airline fees.

And on Monday,  State Attorney Bill Eddins charged Vision Airlines with grand theft, according to a story first reported in the Northwest Florida Daily News. 

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