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16 posts from May 2, 2014

May 02, 2014

Voucher bill heads to Scott's desk

A surprise procedural maneuver Friday helped Florida lawmakers pass one of the most controversial bills of the session.

Both the House and Senate gave final approval to a bill that would expand the school voucher program and create new scholarships for special-needs children.

The proposal will now head to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it.

School choice advocates celebrated bill's passage — an unexpected end to a roller-coaster session.

"The House has made school choice a priority this year for Florida families," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who championed the bill. "With this bill, more kids will have the opportunity to reach their full potential."

But Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, said she was disappointed.

"The members of FEA are chagrined by the continued march to expand voucher schools that are largely unregulated, don’t have to follow the state’s academic standards, don’t have to hire qualified teachers and don’t have to prove to the state that they are using public money wisely," she said.

McCall said it was "especially galling that the voucher expansion was tacked on to an unrelated bill on the final day of the session."

Read more here.

New health care 'train' would include trauma, ALFs, surgery centers


The 60-day legislative session is in its waning hours with one big issue -- the grandfathering of three disputed HCA trauma centers -- still unresolved.

But a "strike-all" amendment filed tonight by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, could be the vehicle to make it happen. And it also may explain why Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, has been spending so much time in the Senate gallery huddling with his counterparts. The proposal includes changes to the health insurance program for state employees that Corcoran is reportedly championing.

This amendment to House Bill 7105 creates a brand new health care "train," an omnibus bill that bundles several topics into one. Brodeur's amendment was filed at 7:55 p.m. just as onlookers began to wonder if the "trauma drama" fix found in a handful of bills wouldn't make it to the finish line. (UPDATE: Brodeur withdrew his initial amendment and filed a revision, swapping the Senate's trauma center language for the House's, at 9:40 p.m. It was the later version that the House approved but the Senate declined to take up.)

Originally, HB 7105 focused on rulemaking changes for nurse homes and updates to the state's organ donation program. But the Senate got a hold of it this week and added on a bunch of stuff. However, Brodeur's amendment starts mostly from scratch.adds on much more.

Of course, there are no guarantees that HB 7105 will be taken up by the House; it was temporarily postponed as we were writing this post. And even if it is approved by the House, the Senate would have to concur tonight before the hanky drops.

Just in case the House does decide to debate the bill tonight, here is a look inside the Brodeur amendment and where that language can be found in other dying legislation.

Continue reading "New health care 'train' would include trauma, ALFs, surgery centers" »

Lynda Bell on port stadium: "I don't see it."


Lynda Bell, the Miami-Dade commissioner charged with promoting sports, said Friday she has significant doubts about bringing soccer to PortMiami.

"I've been purposely staying quiet on this issue,'' said Bell, who serves as chair of the Miami-Dade Sports Commission. "At this point, I'm not loving the port site. I don't see it. I'm loving soccer."

Bell made her remarks during an interview about her campaign delivering 1,500 voter signatures for her reelection bid in District 8 -- more than she needs to qualify. 

The months of rounding up constituent signatures is something of a forced exercise: Bell could have paid a small fee to secure her slot on the ballot, and the incumbent said quite a few voters wondered why she didn't. "The No. 1 question was: Why are you doing this? Aren't you automatically on the ballot?" Bell said Friday. 

Her challenger, Daniella Levine Cava, has raised about $257,000, compared to Bell's $393,000, according to recent campaign reports

For Bell, the signature drive meant her official return to the campaign trail as an incumbent after winning her first term in 2010. "Of course, more people recognize your name,'' she said. Bell said it wasn't easy. "It's shocking how many doors you have to knock on to get signatures,'' she said. "Think about it: 25 to 30 percent of the people, max, are actually home when you knock on their door." 

During the signature drive, Bell said constituents didn't bring up the current hot items facing commissioners: library cuts, budget woes and the soccer debate among them. "I heard about traffic,'' she said. "Keep my taxes low." 

David Beckham wants to bring a soccer stadium to PortMiami, which is facing financial challenges as it prepares to borrow $200 million. Bell said she wants to put a soccer stadium somewhere else in Miami-Dade. "There has to be another option," she said. "Is a soccer stadium the highest and best use for that particular site?"

PolitiFact: Scott gets a Full Flop on DREAMers in-state tuition

After more than a decade of failed attempts, the Florida Legislature approved in-state tuition for DREAMers -- college students who were brought to the United States illegally as children.

The legislation passed through both chambers by wide margins in the final week of the legislative session, during an election year when Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic rival Charlie Crist are battling for the Hispanic vote, which represents about 14 percent of the state’s electorate. Both candidates and their political parties have accused their opponent of not siding with Hispanics in the past and pandering now that they want votes.

Scott campaigned in 2010 in favor of an Arizona-style immigration law and in 2013 vetoed a bill to give DREAMers driver’s licenses. (The term "DREAMers" comes from the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would give such young people legal status.) But this year he appointed Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former Miami-Dade legislator of Cuban descent, as his running mate and is courting Hispanics.

As the Republican-led Legislature appeared poised to pass the bill in April, the Republican Party of Florida attacked Crist for opposing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants in 2006. As a Republican candidate for governor at the time, Crist did oppose the tuition break, though he supports it now. We rated the party’s claim True.

But Crist isn’t the only candidate in the governor’s race to change his mind about DREAMers tuition. On the morning of the final day of the legislative session, the Florida Democratic Party accusedScott of flip-flopping on DREAMers tuition. Their weapon: an interview Scott gave in 2011 to a conservative news program.

We decided to put the topic of in-state tuition for DREAMers on PolitiFact’s Flip-O-Meter. The Flip-O-Meter doesn’t pass judgment on whether a politician flipped; we simply measure whether he did flip and to what extent. Read our findings here

House, Senate approve stadium bill

The Florida Legislature on Friday approved a bill that would allow professional sports franchises to compete for sales tax subsidies.

The proposal passed with a provision that would benefit three construction projects, including the soccer stadium retired player David Beckham wants to build in Miami.

It was a relief to Beckham, who travelled to Tallahassee to push the measure.

"We appreciate the work done by our government officials and their recognition of the enormous popularity of soccer," he said in a statement.  "Today is not only good for Orlando and Miami, it's great for all of Florida."

Lawmakers spent the final day of session last year debating whether to provide state funding for renovations at SunLife Stadium. (They declined.)

"Last year, the stadiums were a contentious issue," said Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City said. "They were not going to go away."

So this year, Patronis and others insisted on creating a process for doling out facilities dollars.

The bill that won approval from the House and Senate establishes an expedited process for three new projects: the soccer stadiums proposed for Miami and Orlando, and the renovations for the Daytona International Speedway.

The three could share in $7 million in tax breaks next year. A legislative budget panel would approve the state funding.

Beginning in 2015-16, a total of $13 million would be available to professional football, hockey, basketball and soccer teams, as well as NASCAR events and professional rodeos. 

Baseball teams could also compete, but only if Major League Baseball eliminates its requirement that Cuban baseball players establish residency in another country before becoming free agents. Florida lawmakers say the practice has driven numerous Cuban athletes into the hands of human traffickers.

Each team could receive as much as $2 million in annual subsidies for up to 30 years.

The franchises would need to apply for the money. The Department of Economic Opportunity would rank the proposals, but the state legislature would make the final call.

Teams would be forced to return the money if they generated less sales tax revenues than anticipated or left the state.

Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, blasted the plan as "corporate welfare for billionaires."

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, called it "a subsidy and a giveaway."

Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, was particularly bothered by the provision for new projects, saying it was added "because [lawmakers] already have intentions for spending that money."

But Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami, said the investment would spur economic development.

"No one can dispute that the famous team we have in Miami, the Heat, does not raise attention and bring tourism to the community," he said.

And Rep. Joe Gibbons noted that no single franchise was guaranteed to benefit.

"There are no monies guaranteed to anybody," said Gibbons, a Hallandale Beach Democrat.

The bill passed in a 89-27 vote.

The proposal has an uncertain fate in the hands of Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott supports economic development projects and job growth, but must also worry about alienating conservative voters before the 2014 election.

David Beckham calls new Florida stadium subsidies a "milestone"

With Tallahassee endorsing more subsidies for stadiums and adding soccer to the list of eligible sports, representatives for David Beckham are touting the vote as a "milestone." Beckham's organization hired a lobbyist to push for the state help. The statement from his Miami press team today:

Today marks another important milestone in our efforts to bring major league soccer to Miami.  By approving this legislation, the state has shown that it truly understands the far reaching impact and importance soccer has on the hundreds of thousands of youth and adults that play and the millions of fans who watch.  

 Soccer is in fact the most popular game in the world.  MLS’ avid fan base is the fastest growing of any sport, outpacing all others in the past 12 years.  And this surge in popularity is coming from nearly all ages of both men and women. 

 Yet, this excitement will only grow as David Beckham brings his team to Miami.

 “We appreciate the work done by our government officials and their recognition of the enormous popularity of soccer,” said David Beckham.  “Today is not only good for Orlando and Miami, it’s great for all of Florida.  I look forward to continuing the work with our fans and the community.”

Video: David Rivera files for Congress, ducks questions about federal probe: "Email me."


Under federal investigation, former U.S. Rep. David Rivera filed for Congress on Thursday, chatting with fellow candidates in line while refusing to talk to The Miami Herald about his legal challenges.

“You can email me,” Rivera said repeatedly.

Rivera said he would take questions if they were in Spanish and said he planned to talk to camera crew that was under contract with Telemundo to cover his filing.

“I’d rather get the sound privately,” Rivera told reporter Mike Vasilinda as they stood in the Florida Division of Elections office.

Asked what he had to hide, Rivera refused to answer.

"If you have a question in English, you can email me,” he told The Herald when asked about a federal investigation into campaign-finance violations, which has resulted in one conviction and the indictment of Rivera’s close friend.

Rivera was far more talkative the night before on “Ahora con Oscar Haza,” a show on Spanish-language Mega TV where he announced he would run against Democratic incumbent Joe Garcia, who beat the Republican U.S. representative in a 2012 race.

Continue reading "Video: David Rivera files for Congress, ducks questions about federal probe: "Email me."" »

Legislators send child protection overhaul to the governor

Florida legislators on Friday approved a major overhaul of the state's child protection laws and sent to the governor a measure that requires the troubled Department of Children and Families to take greater care when handling abuse and neglect cases and abide by more disclosure and oversight.

The goal of the legislation is to make sure the agency that serves as the watchdog for vulnerable children keep the safety of children “as the paramount concern,'' and end the tragedies that led to 477 child deaths in the last six years, as chronicled by the Miami Herald in its Innocents Lost series, said Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, sponsor of the bill.

"This is unconscionable,'' Harrell said before lawmakers passed the bill on the final day of the session. "We have got to change our system in Florida."

The House passed SB 1666 on 117-0 vote and sent it to the governor, with a promise by Harrell that it is just the first step.

“We have made major strides in this bill but it is the beginning,’’ she said. “We are not done yet and we’re going to continue until every chld in this state is as safe as they can possibly be.’’

Gov. Rick Scott told reporters Thursday that he will review the bill but remained noncommital about whether he would sign it

Under the provisions of the bill, the Department of Children & Families, which reports to the governor, must now report on its web site when it fails children, by listing the deaths of children who die from abuse and neglect.

The bill attempts to strengthen the agency's workforce, by improving the expertise of the investigators who respond to calls from the state’s abuse hotline. It attempts to encouraging people with social work and other advanced degrees to join its ranks as investigators by providing tuition reimbursement.

Other provisions require that the agency's review of child deaths be more thorough and undergo a level of oversight to help the child protection system better find the root causes to prevent disaster faster.

The bill also imposes new requirements and additional resources for families that care for medically complex children, creates a new assistant secretary for child welfare, requires DCF to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths and emphasizes the importance of keeping siblings together.

Legislators rejected a last-minute attempt last week by DCF to rewrite key provisions of the bill and the broad, bipartisan support was a signal that legislative leaders have lost confidence in the agency. 

"We have a system that’s broken and we have to take strongand decisive steps to fix it,'' said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, after the Senate passed the bill last week. 

The package comes with money -- more than $47 million -- but it also falls fall short of what service providers say is the need to provide at-risk families with the services they need. 

Advocates and service providers widely praised the legislation as an important and progressive step.

"I am hoping the focus on hiring people with the needed critical thinking, communication and problem solving skills will be a big step forward,'' said Andrea Moore, a long-time child advocate and Fort Lauderdale lawyer. 

"The bill sends a subtle message to DCF that the Legislature does not trust them, and rightly so,'' she said. "But subtlety seems not enough given the latest Herald story on DCFs further retreat from transparency and candor. Somehow the Legislature needs to get DCFs attention that it is time to stop covering up and blaming others and just do the work to fix the problems."

Bart Armstrong, chief operating office of Our Kids of Miami-Dade and Monroe, which contracts with DCF to provide services to at-risk children, applauded the Legislature for passing the bill.

"We hope this is a step in the right direction to ensure that all children have the protection they need and families can access needed services,'' he said in a statement. "We look forward to working with our partners at DCF and our service providers to assure this important piece of legislation realizes it's potential." 



Senate passes voucher expansion, personal learning accounts

Using a surprise procedural maneuver on the last day of session, the Florida Senate passed a controversial expansion of the school voucher program.

Supporters tried passing the bill Thursday, but Democrats blocked it.

They pursued a new strategy Friday: a 141-page, eleventh-hour amendment to a separate education bill that had already won approval in the House and Senate. Under Senate rules, the opponents were powerless to stop it.

The amendment included much of the language from SB 1512.

In addition to expanding the Tax Credit Scholarship Program by creating partial scholarships and removing some of the barriers to participation, it places new restrictions and oversight on the non-profit organization that manages the program.

What's more, the amendment eliminates special diplomas, a priority for Sen. Andy Gardiner. It also creates "personal learning scholarship accounts" that can be used to reimburse the parents of special-needs children for educational expenses.

Sen. Dwight Bullard raised concerns about the way the policy had been brought to the Senate floor. 

"The idea of a last-day amendment that brings up the content of a [seperate] bill is problematic," said Bullard, D-Miami.

Bullard opposed the new language, saying students who participate in the tax credit scholarship program often return to their neighborhood public schools below grade level.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron made the argument for more choices for parents.

"Public schools should not have a monopoly," said Negron, R-Stuart. "We have choices in everything else. We have choices in health care. The default setting should not be every student must go to the public school that is zoned in their district, and if you want to do anything else off the beaten path, it’s unusual." 

The Senate approved the amendment in a voice vote.

The bill itself passed 29-11. It won the support of all 26 Senate Republicans and three Senate Democrats: Gwen Margolis, of Miami; Jeremy Ring, of Margate; and Darren Soto, of Orlando.

The proposal must still return to the House, where it is expected to receive final approval.


Florida to legalize low-THC cannabis

Photo (17)Florida will join the ranks of states that allow marijuana use for medical purposes with a measure strictly limited to cover only patients with seizures, muscle spasms and cancer, under a bill the Senate sent to the governor Friday for his promised signature.

Gov. Rick Scott told reporters Thursday that he will sign the bill to legalize low-THC cannabis to be used by patients with specific ailments, which passed the House and Senate with veto-proof majorities. The Senate voted for the bill, SB 1030, 30-9 on Friday while the House voted 111-7 on Thursday.

"I'm a parent and a grandparent. I want to make sure my children, my grandchildren, have the access to the health care they want,'' Scott told reporters on Thursday. "So, I know the House has passed the bill. It's going back to the Senate. If it passes, I'm going to sign it."

There was a brief skirmish in the Senate, when South Florida legislators attempted to expand a last-minute amendment added to the bill in the House that requires that the low-THC strain of marijuana may only be grown by nurseries that have been continually operating in Florida for 30 years.

There was no explanation given when the House adopted the amendment by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, but Sen. Rene Garcia said it would exclude every nursery and farmer in South Florida, whose nurseries were shut down by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services could not immediately provide an estimate as to how many nurseries might qualify but only 30 nurseries have been in operation 26 years or longer.

Garcia and Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, attempted to amend the bill to broaden the provision to include farmers who have been in operation in Florida for just 10 years.

"We’ve always stood up for the free market, for free competition,'' Garcia said. "How are we now going to say we’re going to limit it to a certain number of growers and not open it up to the industry?"

But Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a prime sponsor of the bill, warned that any change

He later explained that he was told the reason it was added to the House bill was to discourage "fly-by-night" operators from operating in Florida. "We're not interested in creating a new industry that does not currently exist,'' he said. He pledged to return to the issue next year but "I didn't want the perfect to be an enemy of the good and I didn't want to risk sending it back on what I consider a smaller issue on the grand scheme of things."

More than 125,000 children in Florida suffer from severe epilepsy in Florida and 380,000 adults. The bill authorizes doctors to order low-THC cannabis for use by patients suffering from chronic seizures, persistent muscle spasms, including Lou Gehrig’s disease and other chronic conditions, and cancer.

Families of children with severe epilepsy worked all session to persuade the legislature to pass the bill and give them access to the seizure-reducing properties of marijuana extract that appears to be working for children in Colorado.
"It's just been pretty amazing,'' said Holley Moseley of Gulf Breeze, whose 11-year-old daughter RayAnn, suffers from chronic epilepsy and has dozens of seizures a day. "We were talking about the Florida seal and it says 'In God We Trust' and my husband and I have put our trust in God and it just gives me chills to think about."
She and her husband, both health care professionals, adopted their daughter, RayAnn, when she was abandoned by her birth parents at age 2. "She just has this ray about her,'' her mother said. 
Kim Dillard and Rebecca Walters of Pensacola, brought their sons who also suffer from intractable epilepsy to the Senate gallery to watch the debate.
"I'm relieved. This was Josh's last chance,'' Walters said after the vote, referring to her 16-year-old son who has had every treatment, including brain surgery, to try to relieve his seizures. 
"I'm really kind of surprised they did it,'' said Dillard, whose son, Daniel, 15, grasped Bradley's hand and called him "Senator Big Guy" when he came to greet them after the vote.
"It's such a sensitive issue for legislators and their constituents and I felt they might be afraid to take a stand for it but I'm glad they got over their fears,'' she said. "I'm kind of numb. Is it real?"