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Capitol Report: March 22, 2016

Capitol Report: March 22, 2016

Capitol Report 2016 Wrap-up
March 22, 2016

“We certainly don’t dismiss the tremendous efforts that were undertaken by League members and all of our partners across the state. However, when elected officials are chosen by the voters — instead of voters being chosen by the party — the consolidation of power moves from the party to the people.”

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A MAP MAKES

The 2016 legislative session was at times indistinguishable from the prior session, with current committee meetings intertwined with 2015 Special Sessions throughout the fall. The special sessions were required to correct voting district maps drawn by legislators that were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The challenge raised by the Florida League of Women Voters exposed rampant misconduct in the development of the voting districts and a continuation of the gerrymandering that was the basis for the successful Fair Districts Amendment campaign, passed by over 60% of voters in 2010. As months, special sessions, and court decisions continued to swirl throughout the capitol city, the legitimacy of Florida’s electoral process was finally emboldened by the Courts as the State was ordered to adopt voting maps that were prepared and presented by the Florida League of Women Voters.

The impact of these decisions can’t be overstated as to how they influenced the outcome of many of the priority issues we worked through this session. Every seat in the legislature will be on the ballot this fall. Incumbents who have enjoyed being supported by like-minded voters have been cast into districts that are designed to represent the population of the area — no longer in meandering district boundaries that assure party allegiance. The will of the voters, not the elected officials, has been upheld.

What it meant to the outcome of this session was the sobering reality that every vote the sitting legislators would cast during the 2016 Session would be under the scrutiny of a new electorate moving into the 2016 elections. So as we provide our final wrap up of the 2016 Legislative session, please know that your involvement, from getting Fair Districts Amendments on the ballot, to securing its passage, to demanding proper implementation has made all the difference. Read about how this difference played out in two of our key issue areas, with a breakdown of other keys actions to follow. Thank you, and congratulations!

HAMMERING DOWN ON THE NRA

What began as an onslaught of dangerous gun bills moving rapidly through the House and Senate Committee meetings ended with not one successful outcome. National Rifle Association (NRA) representative Marion Hammer, the powerful icon of the gun lobby, ended the session with not one gun bill passed through the Legislature.

Special thanks goes to the diligent and committed work of the League’s Gun Safety Committee, chaired by our First Vice-President, Patti Brigham. Bills were introduced allowing guns on college campuses, the public carrying of guns openly, and adding more damaging provisions to the current Stand Your Ground law while placing greater burdens on our law enforcement officials charged with protecting the public.

While some of these bills would already face resistance from powerful Senate members (Judiciary Chair Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla refused to hear two of the bills), there is no question that the Courts’ determination to adopt the League Senate districts map for implementation in the upcoming election shined a bright light on the importance of public opposition. A clean sweep — Campus Carry: dead, Open Carry: dead, SYG amendments: dead. And the lesson: Voters are more valuable than campaign contributions. Congratulations to Patti Brigham and all of our League advocates. Well Done!

First Vice President and Gun Safety Chair Patti Brigham played a monumental role in defeating this year’s proposed open carry legislation:

FRACKING IN FLORIDA

Voters also became more powerful than the oil and gas lobby once the new maps were established. A bill allowing the establishment of fracking regulations and overriding local bans or prohibition, was slated to be voted on in the Senate in the waning days of the 2015 regular session. You might recall the House threw in the hankie and went home early over the healthcare expansion debacle. Not only did Florida not get Medicaid expansion, but the Senate was left with dozens of bills waiting for final action.

Senator Garrett Richter’s fracking bill was one of those that was caught in the broken cycle. Senator Richter stated during numerous committee presentations this session that the bill would be law if not for the aborted end of the 2015 session, implying there should be no reasonable resistance this time around. And indeed, the bill was moving through committee after committee hearing filled with standing-room-only opposition, passing along party lines. Then, shortly after new Senate voting district maps were adopted by the Court, something unexpected happened.

Sen. Tom Lee asks that supporters of this year’s fracking bill to do so on the record in public, rather than in private meetings:

The final committee stop was Senator Tom Lee’s Appropriations Committee, where the bill stalled, was heard, was defeated, was called back for reconsideration, and finally, recognizing the waning desire to have a vote for fracking on Senator’s records, withdrawn and declared dead for the 2016 session.

These are two of the obvious results of holding legislators accountable to their constituency through the establishment of Fair Districts. Politicians become accountable to their constituents, election outcomes are not based upon party affiliation, and special interests lose their influence to an active and informed voting public.

We certainly don’t dismiss the tremendous efforts that were undertaken by League members and all of our partners across the state. However, when elected officials are chosen by the voters — instead of voters being chosen by the party — the consolidation of power moves from the party to the people. So congratulate yourself, stay involved, and continue to make a difference. Our democracy depends on you!

EDUCATION

Is Florida’s public school system about educational competency, or corporate greed? The 2016 Legislative Session began with a continuation of the decade-long attack on Florida’s public school system. Last year saw the passage of the corporate tax diversion to voucher schools of choice — “schools” that are not held to the same teaching or assessment standards, are often religious in nature, and do not require certified teachers in the classrooms. Meanwhile, our public schools suffer from underfunding.

As numbers of education bills lined up for consideration in the ongoing battle between investing in Florida’s traditional public school system or privately operated but publicly funded alternatives, Senate President Andy Gardiner laid down the gauntlet on what the Senate would allow: President Gardner reported on Florida Face to Face that the Senate took a look at the charter school system and saw a growing business. He said the upper chamber was interested in getting charter schools back to their roots of meeting the unmet needs of school districts.

However, the Education “train” took on a life of its own, disallowing public scrutiny, transparency, or honest debate. Please read the following assessment of this bill provided by LWVF Board member and former Senator Paula Dockery:

When bills are in danger of stalling, they are often added (amended) to another bill (vehicle) that is moving. When that vehicle starts picking up numerous quasi-related issues, it becomes a train. Legislators use these trains to force the other chamber to accept something they don’t want by attaching it to something they do. These bills are difficult to follow and often collapse under their own weight. For this tactic to be effective, it needs to be timed perfectly so that under the pressure of running out of time, one side caves.

HB 7029 turned into the education train. It started in the House as a 57-page charter school bill – a priority of state Rep. Erik Fresen, who has close ties to charter school management and construction companies. It ended up as one of the most controversial and one of the least transparent mega-bills of the session.

State Sen. Don Gaetz was the conductor loading it up. His original three-page bill grew to 89 pages when amended in a Senate committee, and then to 132 pages on the Senate floor. SB 1166 – the Senate companion to the education train – absorbed education issues from perhaps 20 other bills.

How could legislators possibly know what they were voting for? The bill — with its massive changes — bounced back and forth between the two chambers three times over the session’s last three days.

It passed late on the last day of session without the public having a meaningful opportunity for comment.

The final bill is a conglomeration of unrelated and contentious education policies. It allows students to transfer to any public school anywhere in the state if there is capacity – a nightmare for school district planning and budgeting. It allows high school athletes who change schools to be immediately eligible to play – this opens up high school athletics to potential recruiting.

It financially punishes school districts for overspending on construction while making it easier for charter schools to get access to capital funding. It attempts to weaken the school board membership association that often disagrees with legislative policy changes. It relies on performance measures to determine college and university funding.

On a positive note, it creates a funding formula for charter school capital costs that favors charters that serve poor and disabled students.

Unfortunately, a key Senate proposal that prevented charter school operators from using public funds to build or improve facilities they own for their private gain was removed from the bill at the House’s insistence. Wasn’t this the reason for the train in the first place?

Below is additional analysis from Education Committee Co-Chair Sue Legg:

Open Enrollment

Students now are eligible to enroll in any public or charter school with available space. There are priority provisions. In some districts, these provisions are likely to complicate teacher assignments and planning since the estimated number of students will be more difficult to predict in many locations. A within school student transfer request process to a different teacher must be established.

Athletics. Students who choose new schools will be immediately eligible to participate in sports. If the change in enrollment occurs during an academic year, there are limits on sports eligibility.

Charter Schools

  • Charter school applicants must disclose the names of board members, education service provider and other schools operated by the provider including those closed and the financial records.
  • Charters may defer opening for two years.
  • Admission or dismissal must not be based on academic performance.
  • Charter boards may terminate charter voluntarily.
  • Districts must review financial records monthly or quarterly provided by charter board.
  • Charters are automatically closed (after appeals) when two consecutive ‘F’ grades are received.
  • Charters must appoint a local parent representative for each of its schools who may be a board member, staff member or contracted representative.
  • Board meeting must be held twice a year locally but members may appear using communication media. Only the principal or director must be physically present.

Funding

  • Monthly payment schedules from district to charters have been revised to ease flow of money to charters.
  • Annual audits do not have to reveal any of the financial emergency provisions in statute for the most recent fiscal year of the audit. WHAT?
  • Capital outlay will be categorized and funding will be weighted as follows:
    • Charters with 75% FRL = 1.25
    • Charters with 25% ESE = 1.25
    • Charters with both of the above categories =1.5
    • All other charters = 1.0

Base funding will be calculated by dividing the state appropriation by the total weighted FTE for all charters, and then multiplied by the weighted FTE to determine individual charter allocations. This will give priority funding to charters serving charters in low income areas that serve students with disabilities.

  • Special Facility Construction Funding: To be eligible, small districts must levy the maximum amount allowable under its nonexempt property value or from its school capital outlay surtax for three years prior to a request from the fund including. The required levy will be one mill related to the local capital outlay discretionary millage or equivalent surtax. A new cost study is to be commissioned. Fifty percent of the approved special facility funding comes from the state.
  • Exceptions to Construction Requirements: School Boards may request flexibility on meeting certain existing requirements for non load bearing walls, relocatables, lighting

Online Courses

  • Districts may not require students to fulfill online course requirements during the school day. or in addition to the full school day.
  • Students may pass an online course assessment without taking the course.

CAPE Teacher Bonus

  • A $75 or $100 dollar per student bonus to teachers whose students achieve certain levels on the CAPE certification examinations.
  • There are numerous other regulations, most notably for biliteracy programs and a performance improvement plan for Vocational Rehabilitation.

———-

A number of other proposals died, including a proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 759) to establish a parallel educational system which diverts the public’s education tax dollars to for-profit charter corporations through a state appointed charter school authorizer; a bill that would embolden local jurisdictions to establish charters without school district input (SB 808); and numbers of efforts to move capital outlay dollars from school districts to charter schools.

We are continuing our work, both in the Legislature and the courts, to stop the drive to divert billions of dollars in state and federal public education tax dollars to private charter schools and voucher programs, leaving our traditional public schools stripped of authority and underfunded. Such privatization of public dollars puts our citizenry at risk of losing the one constitutionally mandated paramount responsibility of the Florida Legislature: to provide a high quality system of high quality public education in the state of Florida.

And this is where the rest of our bills ended up:

SOLAR TAX EXEMPTION

As warming temperatures, erratic weather patterns and rising seas become a visual reality in our state, the Legislature has taken a step to begin leveling the playing field for renewable energy. The measure (HJR 193) will place a Constitutional amendment on the August 30 ballot exempting taxes on renewable energy infrastructure for both commercial and residential properties. With dozens of co-sponsors, the broadly supported bill moved through both the House and Senate floors unanimously. HJR 193 is awaiting Governor Scott’s signature.
LWVF strongly supported this bill.

ANTI-CORRUPTION

An anti-corruption bill (HB 7071) designed to make it easier to prosecute public officials and government contractors for bribery and bid rigging has been sent to the Governor for his signature. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Ritch Workman (R-Melbourne) and Senator Don Gaetz (R-Niceville).

A key provision of the measure changes the current legal standard for proving bribery or official misconduct. Instead of having to prove that an officer showed “corrupt intent” in accepting a payoff, or rigging specifications to favor a company seeing government business, prosecutors would have to show only that the officials “knowingly and intentionally” did so.

The proposal also expands who may be prosecuted for official misconduct to include officials and employees of companies doing business with a state, county or city agency. It also covers consultants hired by government agencies to develop.

LWVF supported this good bill.

VOTING PREPAREDNESS IN 2016

The work of the Secretary of State’s office in preparing for on-line voter registration and in redefined voting districts for the 2016 election cycle year was presented to the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee by Secretary of State Ken Detzner. He explained their agency is on time and on task for the election cycle, including implementation of the League’s voting district maps approved in the judicial challenges.

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