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Gary Fineout

Florida may shift students away from failing schools

Calling it an “emergency,” Florida may agree to spend up to $200 million to shift students from chronically failing schools to charter schools run by private organizations.

The idea crafted by House Speaker Richard Corcoran and other top Republicans in the Florida House is this: Offer up money to help build “Schools of Hope” in neighborhoods, many of them in urban and poor areas.

The schools would be within 5 miles of or in the zones of existing traditional public schools that have repeatedly earned low grades under the state’s school grading system.

“No longer will we rob children of dignity and hope,” Corcoran said. “Now every single child will be afforded an opportunity of a world-class education.”

Corcoran, a Republican from Land O’Lakes, has touted the idea for months of using charter schools to serve low-income students, but his ambitious proposal is sure to ignite an ongoing debate over expanding the role of charter schools. Charter schools are considered public, but they are run by private organizations that sometimes use privately run companies to manage them.

The “Schools of Hope” proposal is coming at the same time that the Republican-controlled Legislature is considering a contentious idea to force school districts to share part of their local property taxes with charter school operators.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, the lead Democrat on the House’s main education committee, called the House plan part of a long-running movement in the state to offer assistance to charter schools at the expense of traditional public schools run by districts.

“We are creating a mess,” said Jones, who is from Broward County. “We should be taking $200 million to put the resources into those failing schools to ensure those schools are successful.”

Republicans, however, counter that many of the low-performing schools already get extra money from the state and from the federal government but have been unable to make steady improvements. They cite the recent decision of Jefferson County —a rural county in north Florida — to hand over its schools to a charter operator after years of struggle.

More than 100 schools statewide have been consistently ranked as low performing for more than three years.

Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said legislators met with charter school operators and asked what it would take for them to set up schools in the neighborhoods now served by traditional public schools. He said one answer was that they needed help paying for new buildings to house the school.

The House proposal would create both a grant program that would pay for expenses such as teacher training and other startup costs, and a loan program that would pay up to 25 percent of any school construction costs. It would also extend the money only to school operators that are already either nationally recognized or have a record of successfully serving students with a high percentage of students from low-income families.

A big question is whether or not the proposal will survive a looming fight during the next month between the House and Senate over a new state budget. Both sides have crafted vastly different spending plans.

But Sen. David Simmons, the Senate Republican in charge of the panel that oversees education spending, said he is open to any idea that seeks to help students at low-performing schools. Simmons has been championing his own proposal to offer a long school day at the same schools.

“I’m looking at anything that works,” Simmons said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

State paid law firm for meeting with House Speaker

Blurring the lines between his role as an up-and-coming Republican legislator and his job as an attorney, the law firm of House Speaker Richard Corcoran once charged the state for a meeting with Corcoran in his capacity as a lawmaker.

Newly-released billing records show that in October 2014 the firm of Broad and Cassel charged the state’s economic development agency ahead of a meeting between its affiliate, the state Division of Bond Finance, and Corcoran – putting the meeting in the crosshairs of a new review by the Governor of potential conflicts of interest.

At the time Corcoran was not Speaker but he already was viewed as one of the most powerful members in the Legislature.

The development agency, called Enterprise Florida, is at the center of a lively dispute between Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott. Corcoran has railed against the agency – which has earned his firm hundreds of thousands of dollars – as a waste of taxpayer money. He has proposed shutting it down to the loud objections of Scott, who says it plays an important role in promoting Florida as a place to do business.

Corcoran, who has worked at Broad and Cassel since 2011 in its Tampa offices, told The Associated Press that he was unaware that his firm asked to be paid to prepare for the meeting with him.

But he said he attended the 2014 meeting as a legislator and not because he was required to do it for his job. He said he and all legislators are routinely asked by friends and colleagues to meet with people to discuss issues and problems they have with state government.

“Just because I work in a firm doesn’t mean I can’t do legislative aspects for people I know,” Corcoran said.

The organization that regulates lawyers used to prohibit Florida legislators from working at firms that did business with the state. But that rule is no longer in place. The state’s ethics commission in 2003 concluded that legislators could work for law firms that lobby the Legislature as long as the legislator did not share in any profits earned from the firm’s lobbying practice.

Corcoran maintained that firm executives have been steered clear of any potential ethical issues, saying that “nobody even remotely crosses the line.”

Invoices from Broad and Cassel show the firm charged a little more than $400 for the meeting. The firm did not respond to questions from The Associated Press about its billing practices.

But the administration of Gov. Rick Scott is raising questions about Broad and Cassel’s work on behalf of the state as a potential conflict of interest.

The firm has earned nearly $300,000 in the last six years representing Enterprise Florida, the agency has said.

The Tampa Bay Times first reported last week that the firm has been working on behalf of Enterprise Florida, which gets the bulk of its money from the state.

Kim McDougal, the chief of staff for Scott, on Monday sent a letter to all state agencies demanding that they look at legal contracts with outside law firms, especially with those firms that have legislators on their payroll.

“The employment of a legislator by a law firm that conducts business with the state could easily be perceived as a conflict of interest,” McDougal wrote.

McDougal’s letter said that Scott would like to prohibit legislators from working with firms that do business with the state. She said if the Legislature did not change the law then the governor would pursue “executive actions” that she did not explain further.

In a statement released Monday evening, Corcoran welcomed the review. The speaker was encouraged that the governor “is engaged now in ethics reform” and appreciated that Scott was “pointing out that Richard Corcoran cannot by bought by reminding everyone” that he was proposing to completely eliminate the budget of one of his employer’s clients, spokesman Fred Piccolo said.

Broad and Cassel is a well-established firm and has nine offices spread throughout the state. It has long had political connections with leading Republican politicians and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio worked for the firm when he was in the state Legislature. Corcoran was Rubio’s chief-of-staff when the Miami Republican was House speaker.

Before Corcoran started working there the firm’s Orlando office represented Enterprise Florida and other organizations run administratively through the economic development agency including the Florida Development Finance Corporation.

Bill would protect religious expression in schools

Students, their parents and school employees would be guaranteed wider rights to publicly pray and express their religious beliefs in public schools under a far-reaching bill approved Thursday by the Florida Senate.

Backers of the legislation, including Senate President Joe Negron, contend that the measure is needed because schools have unnecessarily clamped down on free speech rights, including prohibiting students from wearing crosses as jewelry, or chiding students who want to include religious figures in their academic work.

The school superintendent in Broward County in 2014 apologized after a student was told he couldn’t read the Bible during a free reading period.

The bill (SB 436) says school districts may not discriminate against any student, parent or school employee because they shared their religious viewpoint.

But those opposed to the bill say it could open the door from everything from cracking down on science teachers who teach evolution to allowing Christian students to intimidate those of other faiths.

“Could it be provoking? Could it be concerning? Yeah, that’s healthy thought. That’s what happens in a free world,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican and sponsor of the bill. “This isn’t protecting a faith, it’s protecting all people’s freedom to express their hearts.”

The Senate passed the bill 23-13 following a wide-ranging debate. A similar bill is now moving in the Florida House.

Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale said the bill could lead to students proselytizing in school.

“We don’t need it. It should be sufficient that during the school day, you can pray to yourself,” Farmer said. “We all have our own personal relationship with God or Allah or whoever we believe in, but to force that on other people is just not necessary and it can be harmful and it can be disrespectful.”

The bill, which is backed by several Christian groups, says that students can wear clothing or jewelry that conveys a religious message. Negron has agreed that this would also allow followers of Islam to wear hijabs in schools.

The legislation also says students can express their religious viewpoints in coursework or artwork without being penalized. It also makes clear students can pray and organize religious groups to the same extent as other clubs and groups are allowed to meet on school grounds.

School districts must give religious groups access to school facilities and they must grant students the right to speak on religious topics at public forums.

___

Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington contributed to this report. Reprinted with permission of the AP.

Under radar, State of Florida spent $240M on lawyers

Gov. Rick Scott and other top Florida Republicans frequently complain about government spending, but they have quietly spent more than $237 million on private lawyers to advance and defend their agendas, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Florida taxpayers have also been forced to reimburse nearly $16 million for their opponents’ private attorney fees. That means an overall $253 million has been spent on legal fights, including a water war with Georgia and losing battles to test welfare recipients for drugs, trim the state’s voter registration lists and ban companies that do business with Cuba from bidding on government contracts.

“A quarter of a billion dollars is a gosh lot of money,” said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a business-backed group that scrutinizes state spending.

Much of the state’s legal spending doesn’t show up in the normal process of assembling the state’s $82 billion budget.

Attorney General Pam Bondi oversees a legal budget of nearly $309 million a year that helps pay for 450 state lawyers, but all that in-house legal firepower hasn’t stopped state leaders from hiring private attorneys, and no one in state government is closely tracking what their hourly rates add up to.

“We do not have that information and are unaware of a way to capture expenditures for the purchase of outside legal services that would not entail an exhaustive search of documents,” said Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi.

The Associated Press came up with the figure by analyzing budget documents and the results of public records requests.

The AP review found that Florida has spent more than $237 million on outside lawyering since 2011, a figure that averages to nearly $40 million a year, plus nearly $16 million reimbursing private attorney fees on opposing sides.

Hiring private counsel in expenditures that fall outside the normal budget process seems common in state governments around the country, though perhaps not on the same scale as during the Scott administration.

New York has spent more than $86 million since 2012, or about $17 million a year, on outside lawyering, according to that state’s comptroller. California’s Democratic leaders recently approved payments of $25,000 a month to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his law firm to defend the state’s interests against President Donald Trump’s policies.

In Florida, it was the soaring cost of the state’s water war against Georgia — more than $41 million in the last 18 months alone— that started to raise eyebrows when the Department of Environmental Protection sought more money in January.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and House budget chief, called the department’s legal spending a “runaway train.”

His response when told that the overall state tab for private legal fees is about a quarter-billion dollars?

“Insane,” Trujillo said.

Trujillo said “nobody is disputing” that defending Florida’s water rights is important, but “as taxpayers and constituents, we have the right to ask: ‘Is it necessary, are we overpaying?'”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who ordered a legislative review, was even more blunt: “We are getting gouged, and that needs to be fixed.”

A spokeswoman for Scott, Jackie Schutz, sought to downplay the outside legal costs during Scott’s administration, saying that private law firms are sometimes necessary “when there are complex legal matters or specific expertise needed.”

“It’s no surprise that our office vigorously defends the laws we sign,” she said.

The decades-long water dispute took a new and expensive turn when Scott asked the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 to limit the water Georgia takes from the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint river basin. Florida argues that Georgia has guzzled more than its share of water at the expense of Florida’s oyster industry.

Bondi’s office handed the case over to one of the world’s most prestigious firms, Latham & Watkins, whose lawyers charge up to $825 an hour. The firm’s bills to date almost doubled the funding Scott personally requested in late 2014 to repair the Apalachicola Bay watershed.

Scott, an attorney and multimillionaire businessman who ran one of the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chains, has backed the use of taxpayer money to bolster the state’s legal team with private attorneys for defending his initiatives, despite the rising costs.

“It’s important to make sure that Florida gets the water it deserves,” Scott said.

Ryan Matthews, the interim secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection, said last week that his staff “carefully reviews every invoice.” He also said that since July 2015, DEP has denied more than $3 million in legal expenses and hourly charges.

A spokesman for Bondi’s office noted that her agency’s lawyers are assigned to duties such as handling criminal appeals and Medicaid fraud cases. Bondi’s office must approve the hiring of outside attorneys by state agencies. Her office keeps a list of outside lawyers hired and hourly fees charged.

But no one keeps track of the overall spending. The governor, Legislature and other state elected officials, such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, do not have to report their spending on legal fees to the state’s chief legal officer.

To capture that total, the AP sought public records on all the firms hired and outside lawyers used. It asked agencies how much they spent. The office of Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater maintains a website where the public can see spending on individual contracts, and provided information on legal settlements.

Calabro said the state may be hiring outside counsel for good reasons, but the cost of this lawyering “has hardly gotten any attention” by either Democrats or Republicans.

The Associated Press has documented that since Scott took office in 2011, agencies under his control, as well as the Florida Legislature and Cabinet officials, have spent more than $250 million on private attorneys. Here’s a look at some of the spending on outside lawyering Florida taxpayers have had to pay for under Republican leadership:

—More than $100 million in fees paid to lawyers by state agencies, including an expensive water rights struggle with Georgia. The water wars have been waged for nearly 20 years, but costs soared after Scott pushed to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This total also includes money billed by lawyers defending the actions of the Legislature and governor. For example, the Department of State paid more than $200,000 to defend a plan initiated by Scott to remove non-U.S. citizens from the voting rolls. Election supervisors said that effort was flawed, and it was eventually halted after being challenged by voting rights groups.

The Scott administration successfully defended a state law that requires public employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay to the state pension fund. But the state spent nearly $533,000 with an Atlanta firm on the litigation.

Some of the agency legal expenses are for routine work that is farmed out to outside attorneys.

For example, the Florida Department of Citrus uses a private firm to act as its general counsel while the Department of Education uses private attorneys to assist in cases alleging teachers of misconduct. The Department of Revenue hires private attorneys to work on child support cases, and the Department of Transportation hires firms to handle some of its eminent domain lawsuits associated with road projects.

— Nearly $16 million paid to opposing lawyers after losing battles over voting rights, gay marriage, drug testing and other controversial policies. This includes $12 million to attorneys who represented pediatricians who contended Florida violated federal mandates by failing to deliver critical health services to 2 million children on Medicaid; more than $800,000 to lawyers working for the American Civil Liberties Union; and nearly $513,000 to lawyers who defeated a state law targeting businesses doing business in Cuba.

— Nearly $20 million spent by the Legislature defending budgets that advocates say shortchange public schools and Republican-drawn legislative and congressional districts. The state won the education lawsuit at its first turn, but the courts sided against them on districts and approved changes that upended the state’s political landscape.

— About $111 million since 2011 through its risk management division. These are cases where someone sued the state over auto accidents, employment disputes and worker’s compensation claims. The annual cost was $19.7 million back in 2012 but it has been rising each year.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

The Grove, a witness to slavery, war and civil rights opens

Calling it a reflection of the “larger American experience,” a home that has been witness to slavery, the Civil War and the civil rights era has been opened to the public in Tallahassee.

State officials on Saturday swung open the doors to The Grove, a state-owned mansion that was once the residence to Gov. LeRoy Collins. Secretary of State Ken Detzner was joined at a ribbon-cutting by members of the extended Collins family.

The grand opening, which came after extensive renovations that cost taxpayers nearly $6 million, came one day and 108 years after Collins was born. State officials said more than 2,500 people visited the museum and the grounds on opening day.

Johnathan Grandage, the executive director of the Grove Museum, called the mansion a “window into our historic and collective heritage.” Detzner said the work done on the property would ensure that “The Grove will remain one of Florida’s most treasured historic sites.”

Built by one of Florida’s early territorial governors using slave labor, the Grove would later serve as home to Collins as he tried to shepherd the state through the civil rights era. The museum includes exhibits and artifacts that stretch over its lengthy history, including rarely heard passages from a diary kept by Ellen Call Long during the Civil War.

Long was the daughter of Richard Keith Call, an officer on Gen. Andrew Jackson’s personal staff, who modeled the home after Jackson’s Hermitage in Tennessee and is believed to have finished building it by 1831. The mansion features a wide main hallway found in many Southern homes, pinewood floors and a winding cypress staircase.

Gov. Call was living at The Grove when he reportedly chastised a group when they came to tell him Florida had voted to secede from the United States. Almost a century later, another owner of the Grove would have to confront the turbulence of the civil rights era.

Collins, who married Call’s great-granddaughter Mary, entered office in 1955. He would earn a reputation for trying to chart a moderate course on race relations instead of adopting the confrontational stance of other Southern governors. He blasted state legislators when they passed an “interposition” resolution in 1957 contending the U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of schools to be null and void in Florida. By the time he left office he concluded that segregation was morally wrong.

While working for the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, he was sent to Selma, Alabama. A picture of him walking alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Young was used against him by opponents when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1968. Collins lost the election.

The state paid more than $2 million in the ’80s to acquire the 10 acres and the mansion located just a mile north of the state Capitol, but it included a provision that the state would not physically begin work on the property until Mary Collins died. Former Gov. Collins died in the home in 1991; his wife passed away in 2009. Both are buried on the estate.

Initially the mansion was supposed to open to the public in the fall of 2014. But it was delayed amid lawsuits with an adjoining property owner and allegations of wrongdoing among top employees overseeing the project.

Can Florida universities and colleges rival rest of nation?

Setting up a debate over the future of Florida’s colleges and universities, the state Senate passed an ambitious proposal Thursday intended to lift schools in the Sunshine State into the ranks of elite counterparts nationwide.

For college students, the legislation means more financial aid and incentives designed to help them graduate faster. For universities, it includes more help to recruit and retain high-ranking faculty as they seek to join the ranks of more prominent universities elsewhere.

“We’re the number one destination in the world and our universities and college should be the number one destination in the nation and the world,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and sponsor of the bill, a top priority for Senate leaders.

But like many other items up for consideration during this year’s legislative session, it’s not clear if Republicans in both the House and Senate can reach a consensus. That’s because House Republicans have asserted that state schools may be wasting money and don’t need any more help from taxpayers. The Senate bill comes with a hefty price tag that could be nearly $300 million if it is fully paid for in the annual state budget.

The Senate voted 35-1 for a bill (SB 2) that would require the state to cover 100 percent of tuition costs for top performing high school students who attend a state university or college. Florida used to pay 100 percent of tuition for those eligible for the top level of the state’s Bright Futures scholarship, but it was scaled back during the Great Recession.

The legislation also includes boosts for several other financial aid programs. Some Democrats questioned why the bill does not call for increasing financial aid for needy students, but Senate President Joe Negron promised that the Senate would set aside additional money for the state’s existing nearly $150 million program.

“My goal is that every student regardless of her or his financial circumstances can attend the university in which he or she has been admitted,” Negron said. “It doesn’t mean they get a free education. They should have to work. Your family should contribute as able.”

But while the Senate leaders are championing a move to steer more money to state universities and colleges, House Republicans are sounding leery of the idea.

The House on Wednesday evening held a nearly four-hour meeting as legislators grilled officials from the state’s 12 public universities on spending by their foundations. Foundations seek private donations that are usually used to augment state spending, but many foundations have used state money to supplement their operations, including helping to pay for employees.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and House budget chief, and other legislators questioned decisions by foundations to spend money on international travel, citing for example, a decision by the University of Florida Foundation to spend more than $61,000 on a trip to Paris. University officials explained that many of the trips abroad were usually done on behalf of students and faculty attending academic conferences and international meetings.

“Do we really think that the problem with higher education in this state is lack of funding or do we think it might be some misappropriation of money?” Trujillo asked.

Trujillo also was skeptical that universities were using a combination of private and public money to pay hundreds of employees more than $200,000. When it was pointed out that the list includes football and basketball coaches, he said it may be time to examine how much they are getting paid.

Negron said that he had no problem with House leaders asking questions about university expenses and said doing “routine oversight” and making sure that “students have an opportunity to go to the best university that they can.”

This story has been corrected to show the vote was 35-1, not unanimous.

Republish with permission of The Associated Press.

Court: Hold back 3rd graders who do poorly on reading test

In a blow to parents seeking to have their children “opt out” of Florida’s high-stakes tests, an appeals court Tuesday ruled that school districts have a right to hold third-graders back when they score badly on a state reading test.

The 1st District Court of Appeal threw out a ruling by a lower court judge who said a handful of school districts must consider options other than students’ performances on the Florida Standards Assessment test when deciding whether to promote a student.

The court also found that Circuit Judge Karen Gievers should have required parents to sue in their home counties instead of filing the lawsuit in Leon County.

Florida first tied reading scores to grade promotion as part of then Gov. Jeb Bush‘s overhaul of Florida schools. But as a backlash against standardized testing has grown some parents have told their children to only fill out their name on the test and to leave the rest of the questions blank.

Last year the parents of more than a dozen children from several counties sued so that their children would not have to repeat the third grade.

The lawsuit maintained at the time that the children should have been promoted because they got good grades and demonstrated they could read at grade level. But school districts and state officials defended the third-grade retentions and even disputed the academic performance of some of the children.

A three-judge panel concluded that the state had a “compelling interest” to make sure students do not have a reading deficiency.

“The test can only achieve that laudable purpose if the student meaningfully takes parts in the test by attempting to answer all of its questions to the best of the student’s ability,” wrote Judge T. Kent Wetherell. “Anything less is a disservice to the student – and the public.”

The decision has little practical effect on the dozen students who were initially involved in the lawsuit because they were able to go on to the fourth grade or they left public schools.

Andrea Mogensen, a Sarasota attorney who represented the parents who sued, said her clients were reviewing whether or not to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“The parents are disappointed, naturally, that the court endorsed a statutory interpretation that in Florida’s public schools, testing is more important than proficiency,” Mogensen said in an email. “The ruling also suggests that the state’s emphasis on testing supersedes the input of a child’s parent regarding their child’s education.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Guns, gambling and taxes: Legislators return to work

Once the Florida Legislature kicks off its 60-day Session March 7, legislators are expected to pass, or kill, dozens of measures dealing with everything from abortion to gambling and the environment.

So far, more than 2,000 bills have been filed, but in the end, legislators usually pass fewer than 300 pieces of legislation each year.

Here’s a look at some of the top issues this Session:

DEATH PENALTY: Florida legislators are expected to quickly pass a measure that would require a unanimous jury recommendation before the death penalty can be imposed. Last year, the state Supreme Court declared a new law requiring a 10-2 jury vote to impose the death penalty unconstitutional.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA: Voters last November overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2, which allows higher-strength marijuana to be used for a wider list of medical ailments than had been allowed under state law. Legislators will consider bills to implement the amendment, including possibly expanding who can grow and sell medical marijuana.

GUNS: There are about two dozen gun-related bills that already have been filed and the vast majority would expand gun rights so they can be carried in places that they are now not allowed including university campuses and non-secure areas of airports. Democrats have proposed more restrictions, but they have virtually no chance of passing.

GAMBLING: Top legislative leaders say they would like to come up with a comprehensive overhaul of gambling laws. But so far, the House and Senate are divided on what should be done.

The Senate is considering a bill that would allow slot machines at dog and horse tracks in eight counties outside South Florida. The Senate gambling bill would also allow the Seminole Tribe to offer craps and roulette at its casinos.

The House version would allow the Seminoles to keep blackjack and slot machines at its casinos for 20 years. But it would not allow gambling to expand to other parts of the state.

WATER: Senate President Joe Negron wants to borrow up to $1.2 billion to acquire 60,000 acres of land and build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries that have been blamed for toxic algae blooms.

JUDICIAL TERM LIMITS: House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants to impose a 12-year term limit on Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges. The House is backing a constitutional amendment for the 2018 ballot that would ask voters to make the change. But it’s unclear if the Senate will consider the proposal.

BUDGET: Florida legislators are required to annually pass a new budget. Gov. Rick Scott has recommended an $83.5 billion budget that includes money for tax cuts, steep reductions for hospitals and uses local tax dollars to boost school spending.

House Republicans are opposed to Scott’s use of local property taxes and they are expected to call for large budget cuts while also increasing spending on education. Senate President Joe Negron wants to eliminate a tax break for the insurance industry and use the money to cut taxes charged on cellphone service and cable television. Negron also wants to boost spending on universities and colleges.

EDUCATION: Legislators are considering several bills dealing with schools, including one that would require elementary schools to set aside 20 minutes each day for “free-play recess.” Another bill would allow high school students to earn foreign language credits if they take courses in computer coding. Legislators are also considering changes to Florida’s high-stakes standardized tests, including pushing back the testing date to the end of the school year.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Negron has called for an overhaul of the state’s colleges and universities that requires the state to cover 100 percent of tuition costs for top performing high school students who attend a university or college. The Senate plan also calls for boosting efforts to recruit and retain university faculty.

ABORTION: Several abortion bills have been filed including one that would make it easier for women to sue physicians for physical or emotional injuries stemming from abortions.

ECONOMIC INCENTIVES: Corcoran wants to scuttle the state’s economic development agency and trim back spending at the state’s tourism marketing outfit. The move is strongly opposed by Gov. Scott who says they help the economy, but Corcoran has criticized the efforts as a form of “corporate welfare.”

HEALTH CARE: Legislators are considering several proposals that would eliminate limits on certain types of health care facilities. They may also overhaul the state worker health insurance program and expand the use of direct primary care agreements between physicians and patients.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Combative House Speaker vows contentious Session

The outcome of this year’s Florida Legislature session may depend largely on a 51-year-old firebrand attorney with a deep conservative streak and a love for cigars and the band U2.

New House Speaker Richard Corcoran has taken on rapper Pitbull, gotten in a knock-down fight with fellow Republican Gov. Rick Scott and vowed to keep legislators in session for months if he doesn’t get his way on property taxes.

He has an ambitious agenda for the 60-day session that starts next week, which also includes term limits for Florida’s most senior judges and throwing out some of the state’s regulations on health care providers. While at one time he lashed out at then-candidate Donald Trump, Corcoran has adopted the president’s populist tone in vowing to fight a “culture of corruption” in a town where Republicans have held sway for nearly 20 years.

Corcoran is unapologetic for his combative ways.

“I think certainly in the political arena, that the hardest thing, in my opinion, that determines a person’s character is what a man does when everyone is looking and you know you are going to go against the grain,” he said last month at a Tallahassee private school appearance.

Corcoran has flummoxed fellow Republicans and stirred speculation he’s more interested in grabbing headlines in anticipation of a potential run for governor in 2018. Corcoran has declined to discuss future political plans.

“Richard is not a political opportunist, he’s never been one,” said Mike Fasano, the Pasco County tax collector and a former legislator who met Corcoran nearly 35 years ago when he was a teenager helping out on local legislative campaigns. “He’s trying to accomplish what he truly believes in.”

Born in Toronto, Corcoran moved to Florida when he was 11. At a young age, he became enamored of conservative thinkers such as author William F. Buckley Jr., and drops names of philosophers like Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau in his speeches. He earned a law degree from Regent University, the school established by evangelist Pat Robertson.

Corcoran works at a well-established law firm and once did legal work for Scott before either was elected. But most of his career has been in politics, including as a legislative aide and chief-of-staff for then-Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, when he helped write Rubio’s blueprint entitled “100 Ideas for Florida’s Future.”

After two unsuccessful runs for the Legislature, Corcoran finally got elected to a Pasco County House seat in 2010. He quickly rose through the ranks and secured enough pledges to become speaker.

He pushed to have the Florida House reject billions in federal aid available under President Barack Obama‘s health care overhaul. During a floor speech now famous in Tallahassee, Corcoran made it clear during a standoff with Senate Republicans over Medicaid expansion that the House would never go along.

“They want us to come to the dance? We’re not dancing. We’re not dancing this session. We’re not dancing next session. We’re not dancing next summer – we’re not dancing,” Corcoran said.

Since he became speaker in November, Corcoran sued to force Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, to reveal how much it paid to Pitbull to promote the state. Corcoran then pushed legislation to scrap the state organization that uses incentives to lure companies to the state. Those moves have angered Scott, whose political committee labeled Corcoran a “career politician.”

Corcoran has put both Scott and Senate Republicans on notice he will not go along with a plan to use a hike in property values – which trigger higher tax payments – to boost funding on schools. Yet at the same time, Corcoran has hinted at his own ambitious plans for education, which will likely mean more money for charter schools. Corcoran’s wife, Anne, founded a charter school. They have six children, and met while attending law school.

Corcoran is a maze of seeming contradictions.

He has railed against the influence of lobbyists, banning them from texting or emailing legislators during committee meetings. Yet his own brother, Michael, is a long-time lobbyist. While at times he sounds stern, he can quickly run off a stream of sarcastic comments and jokes.

“Every day Gov. Scott and I get together and take long walks in the park together,” he quipped recently.

Yet despite harsh treatment leveled at him by the governor, Corcoran says he remains grateful that Scott once hired him, adding: “If Gov. Scott poked me in the chest or whatever, I would take it 10 out of 10 times.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Beyonce, Tim Tebow for prez? Invalid votes spiked in Florida

Beyonce, Tim Tebow or the Norse god Thor for prez? Those were some of Florida’s more unusual picks for president this past election.

And the number of Florida voters who didn’t cast a vote for either Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or any other valid contender spiked in 2016, apparently in protest over the ballot choices.

A report released by state officials Wednesday showed more than 161,000 Florida voters who took part in the elections either at the polls or by mail didn’t cast a valid vote for president.

The “non-valid votes” include those who wrote in such names as Mickey Mouse or Bernie Sanders and others who simply left the ballot blank. It also includes those who voted for more than one candidate.

All told, the invalid ballots outnumbered Republican Trump’s margin of victory over Democrat Clinton of nearly 113,000 votes to clinch Florida’s 29 electoral votes.

And the rate of invalid votes for president in 2016 — 1.69 percent overall — was more than double the rate it was in 2012 and 2008 when President Barack Obama won the state each time.

“There were some people who were very disgruntled,” said Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, giving the read of some fellow election officials on the report.

Independently, he compiled a list showing his own Florida county had write-in votes for president including Beyonce, the former University of Florida quarterback Tebow, Thor of Norse mythology and even one vote for “We Can Do Better.”

There also were a number of write-ins for Sanders, the senator who lost the Democratic nod to Clinton as well as for other Republican or independent candidates.

“I think it was a reflection of the election,” said Cowles, who tracked the names and number of invalid write-in votes even though he was not required to.

Florida’s report — compiled from data collected by all 67 counties — is required after every major election. It got its start after the chaotic 2000 presidential election, which hinged on a contentious recount in Florida famously involving “hanging chads” and more.

In the latest report, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner‘s office concluded the spike in “non-valid votes” was not the result of voter confusion or problems with voting equipment.

The report found nearly 65,000 Florida voters left their ballot blank, also known as an “undervote,” while more than 82,000 wrote the name of someone who did not qualify to run for president in Florida.

All told, more than 9.5 million Floridians voted in the election. The total of “non-valid votes” didn’t include nearly 13,000 provision ballots that were also rejected.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley echoed the view of other local election officials who said the invalid vote spike showed a segment of the electorate was unsatisfied with the two major candidates.

“I would attribute the spike in invalid undervotes to a highly combative presidential election with two polarizing candidates,” Corley said. “I suspect the voter who wrote in an invalid write-in did so deliberately.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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