Teachers union asks Supreme Court to take voucher case

Attorneys for the statewide teachers’ union on Monday filed a brief asking the Florida Supreme Court to review a lower court decision involving the state’s largest private school voucher program.

The Florida Education Association said the supreme court “should accept jurisdiction and review the (1st District Court of Appeal)’s decision.”

The appellate court had sided with a trial court’s decision to throw out the lawsuit filed by the association and others. They argued that its method of funding private-school educations for more than 90,000 schoolchildren this year is unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel said the plaintiffs don’t have standing to sue because they haven’t been harmed by the program. The panel also denied that it violates state law.

The vouchers are funded by corporations, which in turn receive tax credits on money they owe to the state.

But the brief filed Monday said “the decision not only undermines the law of taxpayer standing, but it effectively holds the Scholarship Program – and any other government program similarly funded by a targeted tax credit rather than direct appropriations – to be immune from challenge under … the Florida Constitution.”

The state Supreme Court previously ended a different voucher program championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Florida has several voucher programs in place; the one being challenged extends vouchers to low-income families, most of them black or Hispanic, who send their children to religious schools.

It began in 2001 under Bush, and legislators approved expanding it to middle-income families starting this fall.

The union’s lawsuit asserted that it violates the state’s constitution by creating a parallel education system and directing tax money to religious institutions.

Background material from The Associated Press used in this post, reprinted with permission. 

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SunTrax

Florida Poly and FDOT team up on SunTrax testing facility

Who knows: Florida Polytechnic University could be where one of the self-driving cars of the future is tested.

The school and the Florida Department of Transportation on Monday agreed to partner on the creation of a new “transportation technology testing facility” to be called SunTrax.

SunTrax will include a 2.25 mile oval track on a 400-acre site in Polk County, located between Tampa and Orlando.

“The creation of this facility will establish Florida as a transportation technology leader and create a high-tech hub for the research, development and testing of emerging transportation technologies related to tolling, intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and automated and connected vehicles,” a press release said.

“The construction of the oval track will be designed to support high speed testing of toll technologies, with multiple lanes and parallel tolled express lanes similar to those being constructed on many current highway widening projects throughout the state,” it said.

“The approximately 200-acre infield of the track will be developed next, and is expected to become a hub for automated and connected vehicle testing,” the release added. “The infield will be developed in partnership with Florida Poly, allowing the University to offer its students unique opportunities to participate in the research, development and testing of cutting edge technologies.

“A few of the features that would likely be included are a learning laboratory, a simulated city center, suburban and rural roadways, interconnected signalized intersections, interchange ramps, roundabouts, various types of pavement, and many others.”

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State, local officials join ex-prisoners to protest proposed closing Bridges of America center

A group of state and local elected officials, as well as reformed ex-prisoners who know firsthand what the Bridges of America Orlando Transition Center can do, appeared Monday morning to protest the possible closing of the center by the Florida Department of Corrections.

The center is being considered for closure due to what Bridges of America presumed was budgetary constraints.

But years of results have shown the center to cost taxpayers less money and reduce recidivism, it asserted at Monday’s news conference.

If the center is closed, the inmates in the program would have to operate out of the prison itself.

At Monday’s news conference, reformed ex-prisoners Jeffery VannockerJames Rogers and Jacob Deibler made an impassioned, emotional appeal as to why the current center at 2001 Mercy Drive is ideal — and why the program worked, through sharing their stories.

“Being at this program helped me in so many ways,” Vannocker said. “It was able to open my mind artistically, I did a lot of family days, and they got me into work releases and an excellent job. The counselors helped me with anger management, criminal thinking errors, stuff along those lines. When I got back into the real world, it helped me get ready for society, and the pressures you’re not used to being incarcerated.”

He said one of the most memorable experiences he had with the center was seeing his daughter on Christmas one year after initially not being allowed to.

“I was afforded the opportunity to learn quite a bit about myself, and why I was acting and behaving the way I was,” Rogers said. “Learning came through the process of group therapy, receiving feedback from peers, and one on one counseling, receiving feedback from counselors who not only had been there before, but also were educated to help us understand the reasons for our criminality and substance abuse.”

Deibler said the program at the center was a simulation of sorts to what it’s like to being in normal society.

“There’s more freedom here,” he said. “It’s a place where my thoughts can be heard, where I can put to practice my philosophies. I can make a difference within the community. There’s responsibility, personal and collective responsibility. The thawing process from prison took more than a year to remedy. They make you dig deep and identify thinking patterns, help you cleanse your soul. It’s not easy. It’s not painless.”

Deibler said it was “monstrous” for the FDOC to consider closing down the center, especially under the pretense of saving money.

“Now we’re free men, and we’re taxpayers,” he said. “The state already makes money off our investment.”

State legislators Randolph Bracy, Victor Torres, Mike Miller, Eric Eisnaugle and Bob Cortes also appeared, joining City of Orlando Commissioner Regina Hill and County Commissioner Bryan Nelson. All were fiercely opposed to the idea of closing the Bridges to America center.

Hill, in particular, delivered a fiery defense of the program, accusing the FDOC of wanting to “throw inmates behind prison walls and then throw them in the streets,” and saying it would be impossible for inmates to “stop thinking like criminals” if the Bridges of America program was closed.

“What type of society are we living in, when we’re talking about second chances, 21st century policing, re-entry, but we’re not walking the walk?” she asked.

In a news release issued Monday, FDOC Secretary Julie Jones stated the department wasn’t looking to sever ties with Bridges of America, but rather inviting them to participate in new efforts to combat recidivism and substance abuse on wider scales. Jones cited the FDOC’s new Spectrum program as an example.

“This is an exciting time for FDC and I want to make it very clear that we are not limiting services or the number of individuals served,” she wrote. “If fact, we are soliciting bids for a contract in Orange County that increases the number of work release beds and substance abuse care. Today, more than 60 percent of the Department’s substance use disorder budget is dedicated to treating only a small number of individuals. We know we can do better. We want to provide more services to treat an even greater number of individuals with the same resources.”

Jones goes on to state that every action the department takes is “strategic and advances our mission to serve Florida’s most challenging population by offering them the greatest chance to succeed.”

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Poll: 73% of voters support medical marijuana ballot initiative

The 2016 medical marijuana ballot initiative has strong support among Floridians, according to a new poll.

A new poll from the Florida Chamber Political Institute found 73 percent of voters would support the amendment. The survey found 22 percent were opposed to the ballot initiative.

The poll of 617 registered voters was conducted from Sept. 15 through Sept. 20. The survey has a margin of error of 4 percent.

The 2016 proposal allows people with debilitating medical conditions, as determined by a licensed Florida physician, to use medical marijuana. The amendment defines a debilitating condition as cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things.

A similar amendment received 58 percent of the vote in 2014, just shy of the 60 percent needed to become law.

The new Florida Chamber Political Institute survey is in line with other recent polls, which showed 70 percent of Floridians supported the amendment.

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Solar amendment supported by 66% of Floridians, new poll finds

A solar power amendment is poised for passage, according to a new poll by the Florida Chamber Political Institute.

The survey found 66 percent of Florida voters would support solar power initiative, while 16 percent of respondents said they would vote against it.

“The Florida Chamber supports the solar energy policies in Amendment 1 and it appears Florida voters do too,” said Mark Wilson, the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, in a statement.

The amendment is backed by the state’s major electric companies, and outlines the rules for solar power in Florida. It would put existing law dealing with the rights of homeowners and businesses to own or lease solar equipment into the state constitution.

“Consumers for Smart Solar,” the political committee behind the amendment, has raised nearly $21.2 million since July 2015.

The committee raised more than $2.3 million between Aug. 27 and Sep. 16. That sum included $900,000 from Florida Power and Light Company, $250,000 from Duke Energy, and $325,000 from Gulf Power Company.

Consumers for Smart Solar had nearly $3.2 million cash on hand as of Sept. 16, records show.

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Florida Chamber poll: Hillary Clinton at 43%, Donald Trump at 41%

Florida is too close to call.

A new survey released Monday by the Florida Chamber Political Institute found the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump remains tight. The survey found Clinton is at 43 percent, followed by Trump at 41 percent. Libertarian Gary Johnson received 8 percent support, while 5 percent said they were undecided. Two percent of respondents said they would pick someone else.

The poll of 617 registered voters was conducted from Sept. 15 through Sept. 20. The survey has a margin of error of 4 percent.

The Chamber noted Clinton leads Trump “45 percent to 42 percent in the head-to-head General Election match-up.”

Both Clinton and Trump are deeply disliked. The survey found 55 percent of respondents said they had an unfavorable view of Clinton, while 41 percent had a favorable opinion. The poll found 53 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of Trump, while 39 percent said they had a favorable view of Trump.

“Floridians don’t like either candidate at the top of the ticket, therefore it’s important that both candidates work to connect with voters tonight when they will have the nation’s attention during the presidential debate,” said Marian Johnson, senior vice president of political operations, in a statement. “Presidential debates offer candidates an opportunity to make solid gains and to improve their outcome at the ballot box. I believe Floridians will be watching the candidates closely to learn more about them, and to help determine which way they will vote.”

According to the Florida Chamber Political Institute, Clinton is helped by a commanding lead among Hispanic voters. She leads 53 percent to 30 percent in a head-to-head race with Trump. She also leads with African Americans, leading Trump 89 percent to 4 percent.

Trump leads among white voters, 51 percent to 35 percent.

The Florida Chamber Political Institute found Trump “continues to struggle in South Florida, trailing nearly 20 points in each media market.” In a head-to-head match-up, she leads Trump 56 percent to 25 percent in the Miami market, and 53 percent to32 percent in the West Palm Beach market.

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Personnel note: Tony Guzzo heads to AHCA

Tony Guzzo is the new Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs at Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

Guzzo was with the state for the last ten years.

Most recently, he served as a legislative analyst for the House Health & Human Services Committee, where he worked the past six legislative sessions.

Before that, he was an auditor of workers’ compensation claims for the state.

Guzzo received his undergraduate degree from Florida State University.

His brother, Cory, and father, Gary, are lobbyists with Floridian Partners.

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Florida Chamber poll shows Marco Rubio at 46%, Patrick Murphy at 42%

Another day, another poll showing a close race between Rep. Patrick Murphy and Sen. Marco Rubio.

The Florida Chamber Political Institute released a new poll Monday that showed Rubio and Murphy were locked into a tight race. The survey found Rubio was at 46 percent, while Murphy was at 42 percent. Eleven percent of Floridians polled said they were undecided.

The poll of 617 registered voters was conducted from Sept. 15 through Sept. 20. The survey has a margin of error of 4 percent.

According to the Florida Chamber Political Institute, Rubio leads Murphy among Hispanics, 46 percent to 43 percent. He also leads Murphy among white voters, 53 percent to 35 percent. Murphy, meanwhile, holds a 68 percentage point lead over Rubio among African American voters, 79 percent to 11 percent.

With just a few weeks until Election Day, Murphy appears to remain unknown. The survey found 29 percent of respondents said they had never heard of Murphy, while 22 percent said they had a favorable view of Murphy. Twenty-four percent of respondents said they had an unfavorable view of Murphy.

Rubio is well known, and Floridians views seem evenly split. The survey found 43 percent of respondents said they had a favorable opinion of the Miami Democrat, while 44 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion.

Florida’s U.S. Senate race is one of the most closely watched races in the nation, and could determine control of the U.S. Senate.

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Personnel note: Eric Edwards moving to U.S. Sugar

Eric Edwards, the longtime Tallahassee-based legislative assistant to Republican state Sen. Don Gaetz, is joining U.S. Sugar Corporation’s in-house influence team, the company announced.

His title will be Assistant Vice President of Governmental Affairs.

“We have wanted to strengthen and expand our internal government relations operation for some time, and we have patiently searched for just the right combination of experience, personality, and potential,” said Robert Coker, Vice President of U.S. Sugar and its head lobbyist.

“We hit the trifecta with Eric Edwards,” he added. “All of us on the U.S. Sugar government relations team are very excited about having Eric on board.”

Gaetz, the term-limited Niceville Republican, said Edwards “has a better understanding of the legislative process and how things get done in Tallahassee than almost anyone I know. He has served the Senate with distinction.”

That’s not the only good news for Edwards: He also married Capital City Consulting lobbyist Jen Gaviria this past weekend.

She will be leaving the firm to relocate with him to the company’s headquarters in Clewiston, Hendry County.

“She’s a superstar, and we hate to lose her, but we wish her and Eric all the best,” firm co-founder Nick Iarossi said. He is actively recruiting to fill Gaviria’s position, he added. 

“This is an exciting new chapter in a new town, but will be equally challenging,” Gaviria wrote in an email sent to friends and clients Sunday night. “I thank the hardworking and incredibly talented members of Capital City Consulting for such an enriching experience. I am forever grateful for their friendship, and will always consider them family.”

Iarossi’s firm has built a reputation for being able to attract the very best of rising talent. It will be fascinating to see who CCC next draws to its roster.

The sugar company regularly employs dozens of lobbyists over the course of a year. As of Friday, lobbying registration records showed 23 on board, including Brian Ballard, Frank and Tracy Mayernick, and Mac Stipanovich, to name a few.  

U.S. Sugar, with over $1 billion in annual revenue, stokes envy among other agribusinesses and roils controversy among the state’s environmentalists.

It got its start in the early part of the 20th century, when businessman Charles Stewart Mott “invested millions of dollars of his own funds in a sugar cane farming operation and convinced others that the dream of growing in the rich muck soils around Lake Okeechobee was not only possible, but it could be profitable,” the company’s website says.

It now farms nearly 190,000 acres in Hendry, Glades and Palm Beach counties, creating jobs and contributing to America’s table. But it’s regularly been criticized, usually unfairly, for agricultural practices that cause runoff into the state’s “River of Grass.”

In 2013, the conglomerate got a measure passed by lawmakers and approved by Gov. Rick Scott that saved the industry millions of dollars on Everglades pollution cleanup.

U.S. Sugar’s political contributions average approximately $1.5 million per year. When you subtract dollars spent in years involving a constitutional amendment related to their industry, that average is significantly lower.

All of Florida’s major industries, including Disney, pay for the smartest and best lobbyists to help them navigate Florida’s crowded and confusing political process. Edwards, under Coker’s tutelage, will no doubt soon be on that list. 

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Personnel note: Ashley Ross to join Senate President’s office

ashley-rossAn expert political fundraiser is joining Joe Negron’s team as he prepares to become the new President of the Florida Senate.

Ashley Ross will become a Deputy Chief of Staff, according to spokeswoman Katie Betta

She also will be a Senior Policy Advisor to the President for commerce and tourism, military and veterans affairs, space and domestic security, community affairs and joint legislative committees.

Ross, a member of the SaintPetersblog “30 Under 30” Class of 2013, began her career in Gov. Jeb Bush‘s Legislative Affairs Office.

She later served in several legislative affairs roles in the private sector, including with The PGA Tour of America.

Ross also had senior positions at the Republican Party of Florida and the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

She received an undergraduate degree in marketing and an MBA from Florida State University, Betta said.

Ross will be joining Negron’s staff after the November general election. She now runs her own political fundraising and consulting firm in Tallahassee. 

Negron, a Republican state Senator from Stuart, became Senate President-designate after his rival, Jack Latvala of Clearwater, ended his bid for the presidency in November. He will instead become chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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