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9 posts from April 21, 2014

April 21, 2014

Advocates raise new doubts about House child safety overhaul

Children’s advocates showed the first sign Monday that they might not support the Florida House’s sweeping rewrite of the state’s child-welfare laws, saying the proposal may produce only superficial reforms and not result in substantial changes that protect children.

“It’s going to do a job of better documenting societal issues, and I don’t think it’s going to change a thing,” said Mike Watkins, chief executive of the Big Bend Community Based Care organization after the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved HB 7169.

The bill would increase the professional requirements of investigators in charge of responding to complaints from the state’s child-abuse hotline by requiring most staff to have social work or other professional degrees, and it would require more transparency from the state Department of Children & Families about child deaths.

The House and Senate have allocated up to about $45 million in additional money to address the issue, much of it devoted to increasing the number of DCF child-protective investigators. Families are then referred to local community-service organizations where they are assigned to a case worker for follow-up attention.

Watkins said that while child-protective investigators are fact-finders, and case managers are “scorekeepers on how parents and their kids are doing,” it is the treatment programs — from mental health to substance abuse — that result in meaningful behavioral change for the troubled families. The legislative reforms are silent about those services, and no additional money is being allocated for them, he said.

The governor’s proposal to spend $40 million to add 400 investigators was written before the Miami Herald’s report, Innocents Lost, came out and child advocates said Monday that the legislature’s adherence the to governor’s proposal, and refusal to modify in light of the findings, is short-sighted.

“It’s not better score-keeping” that will fix the problem, Watkins said. “It’s a matter of changing behavior for children of Florida.”

Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, the sponsor of the bill, acknowledged that the bill was not perfect. More here. 


Governor's surgeon general opposes marijuana bill

Efforts to legalize a specific strain of marijuana to help children with intractable epilepsy faced a new hurdle Monday as the governor’s chief medical advisor said he opposed the bill because it will allow untested drugs into the market, raising the specter that the governor may veto the bill.

“We must be wary of unintended consequences and remember that first we must do no harm,” said John Armstrong, the Florida Surgeon General and head of the Florida Department of Health. He told the House Judiciary Committee that the better approach would be to allow for research and testing of the marijuana extract under the federal system.

Armstrong then abruptly left the meeting and would not say if his statement was a signal from the governor that he might veto the bill it it reaches his desk. Gov. Rick Scott has refrained from endorsing or rejecting the bill in public.

The House sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, said he was confident that he will work with Armstrong to address his concerns about quality control and predicted the bill, which the committee substantially revised on Monday, will pass.

“We intend to send to the governor a medical cannabis bill, and I expect that he will support it,’’ Gaetz said after the meeting. Story here.


Voucher provision could be back in play

The immigrant tuition bill isn't the only bill that will get a second chance in Tuesday's Senate Appropriations Committee meeting.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has filed an amendment to SB 1512 that would put the controversial school voucher proposal back in play. 

Galvano's amendment is not the expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship program that leaders in the House and Senate once sought. It would not increase the cap on the tax credits available to businesses that fund the scholarships, or create partial scholarships for children from higher-income families. It would, however, open up the program to more foster children, and increase the amount of the scholarship slightly in 2016-17.

The new Galvano language also deals with accountability. One provision seeks to establish a Learning System Institute at Florida State University to conduct annual reports on student performance and year-to-year learning gains.

The amendment does not require scholarship students to take the state exams or something similar, as Senate President Don Gaetz has demanded. Still, Galvano said Gaetz considers the proposed changes "a step in the right direction."

Galvano acknowledged that there were still "a lot of differences" between the House and Senate versions. He called the differences "fourth-floor issues," meaning they would need to be resolved by the president and speaker.

The Senate Appropriations Committee will weigh in on the amendment Tuesday morning.

Not much ground to cover in House and Senate budget negotiations

It’s a magical time for the budget season, when projects suddenly appear in the proposed budget, or, just as easily, vanish with nary an explanation.

Monday was the first day when the House and Senate officially met to negotiate their proposed budgets, and they’re already pretty close. (Makes it hard to believe they haven’t already been meeting, amirite?)

Out of a proposed spending of $75 billion, lawmakers have already agreed on $500 million in tax and fee cuts (they still need to figure out the shape of about $100 million), a $580 million to cover unfunded liabilities in the state’s Florida Retirement System, and $3 billion in reserves so we “don’t eat our seed corn,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

“There are no differences that can’t be worked out,” Gaetz said. “We’re starting fairly close…There are no insurmountable issues here.”

The biggest differences can be found in the pet projects, which grew  in number this year because of a pent-up demand combined with the first budget surplus in an election year since 2006.  

But already that gap started closing, and that meant good things for Clearwater’s Marine Aquarium. The House budget proposes $4 million for the aquarium, which received $5 million last year, partly because Dolphin Tale 2 is being shot there. The Senate only proposed $1 million, but doubled that offer with its first offer to the House.

Other winners include:

-- Le Feria De Las Americas, a non-profit multicultural event produced in Miami by Exponica International that started in 1991. The Senate didn’t propose anything in its original budget, but offered $250,000 on Monday to match the House offer.

-- A BMX training facility in Oldsmar, which the Senate didn’t budget initially. It offered $750,000 to come closer to the House proposal of spending $1,270,000 on it.

-- Traffic enforcement: the Senate threw in about $500,000 more in upping offers to match the House in spending $3.18 million to replace Florida Highway Patrol pursuit vehicles and $3.48 million on “enhancing traffic law enforcement.”

-- The Florida African-American Heritage Preservation Network, which the Senate offered $400,000, a $100,000 increase from its original offer, so that it could match the House.

-- Port St. Joe’s Historic Cape San Blas Lighthouse Complex Rescue and Relocation Project, which the Senate didn’t even budget for. But it matched the House offer of $200,000.It received $325,000 last year.

-- Palm Harbor Historical Society Museum, where the Senate matched the House’s $387,753 after initially proposing nothing on the project.

-- Dunedin Fine Art Center, Inc. Expansion got the Senate to meet the House offer of $500,000, after not proposing a dime for it in its initial budget.

-- The Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center crashed the proceedings with a $500,000 offer from the Senate. It wasn’t in either the House or Senate budget.

-- The Urban League of Broward saw its take from the Senate climb from $150,000 to $200,000. The House offered nothing for it in its initial budget.

-- Metropolitan Ministries in Pasco climbed to $1 million in the Senate to match the House’s proposal, way more than the original $100,000 from the Senate.

-- Hernando County’s Nature Coast Educational Plaza shot up in the Senate from $200,000 to $1 million, matching the House offer.

Losers include Visit Florida, which saw the Senate shave $1 million from its proposed budget and offer $30.5 million to the state’s tourism agency, moving it closer to the House’s $27.8 million.

Other losers, so far:

-- SkyRise Miami -- The tower/amusement ride in downtown Miami has $10 million in the House budget. The Senate proposed spending  nothing on it in its budget. In its first offer, it still doesn’t.

It’s early. More will change. And it will all happen behind the scenes in a state where there are now 1,100 exemptions to Florida's public records law. There were only 250 exemptions in 1985.

Florida senator hopes to keep immigration tuition bill alive

A procedural maneuver could save a bill that would grant in-state college tuition rates to certain undocumented immigrants.

Last week, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, announced that his committee would not hear the proposal, which weakened its chance of becoming law.

But Monday, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he would try to add the language to four other bills that come before the panel on Tuesday. If Latvala is successful, the immigrant tuition provision would stay alive.

He probably has the votes.

"Unless some of the [Republicans who supported the bill in previous hearings] get their chains pulled by leadership, we should be fine," he said.

Read more here.

Legislature decides to stay out of juvenile justice funding spat


Counties had hoped a last-minute budget deal would end their lengthy battle with state over juvenile justice costs. But the House and the Senate have not added the topic to their growing budget negotiations list, and time is running out.

"Lights are dimming on that issue quickly," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the Senate's criminal justice budget chief.

The funding dispute affects 38 counties that are expected to pay a portion of the costs of incarcerating youths before they are sentenced. These counties say the Department of Juvenile Justice erroneously billed them $140 million in recent years, and half of them filed legal challenges.

The Florida Association of Counties had hoped lawmakers would agree on a new billing formula that would also reimburse counties for past overpayments. Since that doesn't seem to be happening, Gov. Rick Scott's billing plan will be implemented.

Under that plan, counties will be expected to pay for about 57 percent of juvenile detention costs and receive no back payments. Counties had considered this option their worst-case scenario, and it also means the litigation and disputes about past billings will continue.

Budget negotiations have begun


 The House and Senate have agreed on overall budget figures and negotiations began tonight with remarks from Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford. Smaller budget conference subcommittees are now negotiating on various aspects of the budget.

Weatherford said the relatively short window -- the Legislature is coming off a weeklong holiday break and has only two weeks to finalize the budget  -- means contentious issues will be "bumped" to the next level of review sooner, Wednesday at the latest.

In order for lawmakers to vote on the budget on the scheduled final day of session, May 2, the document needs to be finalized by April 29 to trigger the required 72-hour "cooling off" period in enough time.

Click here for the list of House budget conference members.

Click here for the list of Senate budget conference members.

Continue reading "Budget negotiations have begun" »

The DGA’s big money FL investment: $500,000 for Charlie Crist


The Democratic Governor’s Association is all in for Charlie Crist, cutting a single $500,000 check that showed national Democrats believe the Florida Governor’s mansion is in their reach.

The donation is the largest contribution to Crist’s political committee, Charlie Crist for Florida. And it’s one of the largest given this campaign cycle.

“It’s just one more realization that Charlie is going to be the nominee,” Bob Poe, Crist’s fundraiser, told The Miami Herald. “This is probably the first installment from the DGA. And it’s not only their blessing of Charlie. But it’s the recognition that this is real. Charlie has proven himself time and again.”

Crist is ahead in the polls, but he trails Gov. Rick Scott in fundraising.

Still, Crist has raised a noteworthy sum -- $10.9 million for his campaign and political committee – since November.

Continue reading "The DGA’s big money FL investment: $500,000 for Charlie Crist" »

In early Hispanic outreach, Rick Scott unveils Spanish-language TV


Gov. Rick Scott airs his campaign's first Spanish-language TV commercial, an earlier-than-usual Hispanic outreach effort that reflects Florida’s changing demographics as well as the depth of the Republican’s aggressive $6 million ad blitz .

No other Florida governor has advertised so heavily — especially in Spanish — nearly seven months before his election.

The ad’s title and message, “Oportunidad,” jibes with two English-language positive spots Scott began running in mid-March. It’s all about jobs, which have increased on his watch.

" Yo no soy un experto en la política pero yo sé el valor de un trabajo," Scott, looking into the camera, says in the new commercial ("I’m not an expert in politics, but I know how valuable a job is").

The rest of the 30-second ad, voiced-over by a woman, tells Scott's rags-to-riches story.

Of the nearly $5.4 million Scott has spent so far, the governor has run two negative ads that attack Democrat Charlie Crist for his support of Obamacare, described in a misleading way. The negative ads underscore Scott's relatively poor poll numbers compared to Crist.

Scott's supporters point out, however, that he's not just defensively going after Crist. The governor is going on offense by quickly reaching out to the fastest-growing segment of the state's electorate, Hispanics, who account for roughly 14 percent of the voter rolls.

Scott's campaign says the $500,000 Spanish-language television and online ad buy will start Wednesday in four major markets for Spanish media: Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fort Myers-Naples and the Orlando area.

Full story here