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Senate budget eliminates direct funding for youth mentoring

State Sen. Joe Negron, a former budget panel chief, told his colleagues last month in an acceptance speech for his upcoming Senate presidency that the state must do more for its troubled children and teens.

“We should not and we will not tolerate serious wrongdoing by young people but, at the same time, let’s not criminalize adolescence,” he said, according to the Senate Journal’s version.

Most experts agree that after-school mentoring programs, such as those offered by Big Brothers Big Sisters, are effective at helping kids, especially those at risk, to succeed in school and develop social skills.

But the Florida Senate, in its proposed $80.9 billion budget for next year, seemingly has gone to a “dog-eat-dog” approach, telling the state’s mentoring programs that to get funding, they’ll have to fight for it among themselves.

The Senate budget, released Friday afternoon, essentially zeros out funding for individual providers and instead creates a $30 million “competitive grants” program where organizations will have to apply.

Under the Senate plan, money will be awarded by a committee of members appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Andy Gardiner, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, and could include Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and other top officials.

State Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican who chairs the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, was unavailable for an interview, his assistant said.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta provided a statement from Gaetz: “The grant process is designed so worthy groups can be funded on the basis of their value to children and their results. Our committee is recommending more money in this fund than the total funded for these purposes in the past. (It is) a fairer process based on evaluation of results, not dependent on lobbyists, and (provides) more money for these worthy causes.”

In a Tuesday hearing, Gaetz warned the nonprofits that before they issue calls to “go to the Capitol and burn the place down,” they should realize their funding won’t be “on a line-item basis (but) they’re not being cut.”

When state Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, questioned the overall education spending plan, Gaetz told him, “The concrete is poured, and it’s hardening … Everything is a zero-sum game.”

Representatives of the state’s nonprofit children organizations say they’re flabbergasted — and feeling betrayed.

“We’ve been getting funding from the Legislature for 19 years,” said Daniel Lyons, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs. “We did everything we were asked to do, so this came out of nowhere.”

The Boys and Girls Clubs mentor about 6,000 children in over 200 facilities throughout the state.

Lyons said converting funding into grants for which each group will have to apply means organizations like his won’t get paid, if at all, until well after the start of the fiscal year on July 1.

“Talk about being bowled over and slapped in the face,” he said.

Jody Clifford, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Florida, said she didn’t immediately know how many youths are in her mentoring programs “but it’s a huge number.”

Having to compete and wait for funding “could have a huge negative impact on the already low-performing children we help,” she said. “We’re absolutely stunned.”

On the other hand, the House proposed budget, also released Friday, keeps a method of direct funding to specific groups with a $14.8 million pot of money.

From it, $2.2 million is slated for Big Brothers Big Sisters, $3 million goes to the Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, and $6.2 million is for Take Stock in Children, a nonprofit led by Jillian Hasner, wife of former state Rep. Adam Hasner, the House Republican Leader in 2008-10.

Money for mentoring has been decreasing in recent years’ state budgets, going from $30.5 million in fiscal year 2014-15 to $18.4 million for 2015-16.


Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that Senator Gaetz’s “concrete” quote was in response to a question from Senator Ring. It also includes an updated comment on the Senate spending plan from Gaetz.

Brian Pitts suing Rick Scott, lawmakers over “invalid” state budget

Perennial gadfly and Capitol fixture Brian Pitts is suing Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature for “preliminary and perpetual relief” from what he calls an “invalid” state budget for this year.

Pitts, a trustee of his St. Petersburg-based Justice-2-Jesus church group, filed a 30-page complaint in Leon Circuit Civil Court last week, according to court records. The suit also names House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, Senate President Andy Gardiner, and Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

He’s well known to observers of The Process, often speaking at committee hearings where he hectors lawmakers for what he considers flawed legislation. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In the sometimes rambling document, mystifyingly laid out in landscape format, Pitts said the 2015-16 state budget, passed in a Special Session last year, is both “unlawful and unconstitutional.”

Pitts laid out a laundry list of offenses bolstering his argument, including a lack of itemizations and improperly defined line-items, though Pitts acknowledges “there are just too many (deficiencies) to number.”

Surprisingly for a plaintiff in a court action, Pitts seemingly apologizes for having to file suit.

“Plaintiff, truly, has learned to love … each unique and highly esteemed member of the Florida Legislature, but they cannot continue in their pattern of unbridle(d) discretion or abuse,” he wrote. “To be honest, in all sincerity, plaintiff never thought he would ever be filing such a massive relief application” but his “conscience will not allow ignoring this any longer.”

The case was assigned to Circuit Judge George Reynolds III, who recently presided over the state Senate redistricting challenge, finding for the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs, resulting in a redrawn district map.

Pitts also filed to pursue his action under indigent status, asking to be relieved of usual court costs. He seeks unspecified damages, costs and attorney fees; he filed the case “pro se,” meaning he is acting as his own attorney.

In 2003, Pitts spent nearly four months in the Pinellas County jail on a charge of practicing law without a license, which he said was a wrongful arrest. Claim bills have been subsequently filed in Tallahassee seeking to reimburse Pitts up to $350,000, records show.

Big-name groups, leaders trumpet progress on legislative priorities

A major trio of political players at the Florida Capitol are happy with progress made Thursday on big-ticket priorities in the Legislature.

The H2O Coalition, a water policy consortium affiliated with Associated Industries of Florida, applauded the further progress of what it calls comprehensive water reform in the Legislature.

The praise comes after the House gave final approval to SB 552 by Sen. Charlie Dean, which is identical to HB 7005 by Rep. Matt Caldwell, who led the House’s efforts to update state water policy after voters’ overwhelming approval of Amendment 1 in 2014.

“Today is a historic day for Florida. Floridians should be proud of the leadership demonstrated by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, Senate President Andy Gardiner, Representative Matt Caldwell, Senator Charlie Dean and Commissioner Adam Putnam in passing a comprehensive water policy that should serve as a model for other states,” AIF Senior Vice President of State and Federal Affairs Brewster Bevis said in a prepared statement Thursday afternoon.

“If enacted, the impact of this comprehensive water policy will be far-reaching and felt long after the members of this body are in office,” Bevis said. “Future generations of Floridians will remember the 2016 Legislative Session as the time when lawmakers upgraded our water policy with higher water quality standards, stronger protections for our springs, and a forward-thinking approach that integrates water planning into economic development.”

The AIF executive and policy advocate concluded his remarks with a clarion call to the governor, who must sign the legislation for it to go into effect.

“As this bill goes to Governor Scott’s desk for his consideration, I join representatives from Florida’s business, environmental and agricultural communities in urging him to sign it,” Bevis said. “The future of Florida’s water supply depends on it.”

Foundation for Florida’s Future, for its part, celebrated the approval of greater educational funding and support for children with unique abilities.

“I am particularly grateful to the Legislature, which today expanded the Gardiner Scholarship Account Program to include 3- and 4-year-olds as well as students with muscular dystrophy and autism spectrum disorder,” FFF Executive Director Patricia Levesque said after the passage of SB 672. “This measure will give parents more options and resources to ensure brighter futures for their children. Thank you to Senator Don Gaetz and Representative Erik Fresen for sponsoring this measure, and to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli for supporting and leading the House to support.

“But my deepest appreciation goes to Senate President Andy Gardiner. His passion and drive has turned a personal crusade into a state priority. The impact of his advocacy will make a profound difference in the lives of children – with unique abilities – for generations to come. It is an outstanding legacy and one that will be long remembered.”

Finally, the Senate President himself took a victory lap after securing the relatively easy passage of a raft of priorities, chiefly the aforementioned support for children with disabilities.

“I am so grateful to Speaker Crisafulli and my colleagues in the House for making our cradle-to-career pathway to economic independence a reality for people with unique abilities and their families,” Gardiner said.

“There are so many Floridians with unique abilities who can benefit from the opportunity to personalize their education and to learn the skills needed to contribute to Florida’s workforce in a meaningful way. This comprehensive package will give people with unique abilities and their families a road map to education and employment opportunities that will help them on the path to economic independence.”

House OKs priorities for Steve Crisafulli, Andy Gardiner

The state House of Representatives knocked out three pieces of priority legislation Thursday, sending two measures — a wide-ranging water policy bill and an education bill expanding scholarships to students with disabilities — to the governor.

“I think this just sets the tone,” Senate President Andy Gardiner said after the House adjourned Thursday. “I think you’re going to see us work together quite a bit on all this stuff. This has just been a really good week.”

The water bill (SB 552) was a top priority for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican. The bill, according to the Associated Press, “modifies dozens of areas of Florida law, including controlling pollution and restoring natural flow in springs and rivers.”

“This is what working together can do, and obviously this is us finishing off a work plan we started together,” Crisafulli said during a joint news conference with Gardiner. “Obviously there is a lot left to do, with the budget to pass and some great things we can do for the state of Florida over the next several weeks.”

The House shot down several amendments proposed by Minority Leader Mark Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat.

The water package passed the Senate 37-0 on Wednesday. The House voted 110-2 on Thursday to approve it.

“The Florida Chamber has long supported science-backed efforts that will ensure our state can meet the demands of today and of the future,” said Christopher Emmanuel, director of infrastructure and governance policy at the Florida Chamber, in a prepared statement. “This bill is a meaningful step in the right direction to help ensure Florida’s water future doesn’t go the way of California. This bipartisan effort is a fantastic start to Florida’s 2016 Legislative Session.”

The House also approved an education bill (SB 672) that a top priority for Gardiner. Among other things, the bill expands scholarship opportunities for students with disabilities and provides incentives for school districts to adopt dress codes for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The measure also renames the scholarship program — formerly known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, or PLSAs —  the Gardiner Scholarships, after the Senate President.

The state Senate voted 39-0 to approve the measure Wednesday; while the House supported it 109-1. Republican state Rep. John Tobia was the only”no” vote.

The House also approved another Gardiner priority bill. That measure (HB 7003) addresses economic independence of individuals with disabilities. Among other things, it creates a Financial Literacy Program for Individuals with Development Disabilities to promote economic independence and employment opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities. That measure passed 110-0. It now heads to the Senate.

Senate passes disabled children bill; now it moves to House

The Florida Senate on Wednesday passed legislation expanding aid for students with intellectual disabilities and named the program for Senate President Andy Gardiner, who has made what he calls “people with unique abilities” the signature issue of his tenure as president.

The bill (SB 672) increases funding from $55 million to $73 million for $10,000-per-year scholarships for children with autism, Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, starting as early as age 3.

The program was expanded last year to add categories of disabilities, increasing recipients to about 4,300. The new bill makes the expansion permanent, likely increasing recipients to 8,000.

Gardiner says he expects the House to pass a companion bill, HB 7011, by Friday, sending the legislation to Gov. Rick Scott.

Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome, and his wife has been active on the issue.

He initially rejected an amendment by sponsor Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, naming the program “Gardiner Scholarships” in honor of his family. Gardiner said he had promised House backers the Senate would pass a bill with no amendments, to match the House bill.

But he accepted the honor, and was overcome with emotion at the podium, when House Speaker Steve Crisafulli called during the deliberations to say the House would accept the amendment.

“I didn’t see that coming. It’s a moment I won’t forget,” Gardiner said afterward.

“This is a bill that people come up to us with tears in the eye and talk about how it’s changed their lives,” he said from the podium.

The bill passed despite objections by Democrats that it included $14 million for financial incentives for school districts that require students to wear uniforms. The districts would get an extra $10 per student per year.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, called the incentives “a giveaway to the school uniform industry,” but withdrew an amendment to remove them.

Gardiner said the uniform measure was included because, “It was a priority of the House.”

The Senate also passed bills creating employment incentives and a financial literacy program for persons with intellectual disabilities.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Major players react to Senate passage of water legislation

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a major water bill, a major priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and the object of much interest on the part of environmentalist community as well.

Reactions from significant groups and individuals will continue to flow in as the debate goes forward, but for now here’s a look at what some of the most influential Floridians are saying about the move.

The Senate itself put out a detailed statement breaking down the legislation piece by piece. It heralded the move as a major step forward, one year after disagreement on health care policy ended the Session and sent a similar environmental bill to its demise.

“Passing this legislation today is a win for Floridians,” said President Andy Gardiner. “This legislation increases public access to conservation lands for recreational purposes, protects Florida’s unique environment, and ensures Floridians have quality water for future use through restoration and conservation efforts of our water bodies.”

Gardiner also thanked Sen. Charlie Dean, who chairs the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation committee.

“Today, the Senate approved legislation to transform the way Florida conserves our most valuable natural resources, making certain that we take a statewide, comprehensive approach on restoring and preserving our water and natural resources,” Dean said. “This bill establishes a systematic and transparent process to ensure taxpayer dollars are allocated to meaningful water quality and restoration projects and implements best management practices to increase our clean water supply.”

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also relayed his pleasure at the bill moving forward.

“I thank the Senate for the passage of this key legislation,” Putnam said. “This session, we have an opportunity to pass meaningful water policy reform that will help meet the needs of our growing population and thriving economy, while protecting our most precious natural resources.

“This proposed legislation is a much-needed step forward that accounts for a long-term, science-based and strategic approach to protecting our water,” Putnam said.

The Associated Industries of Florida’s affiliated H2O Coalition also had fond words for the legislation Wednesday. The group was formed in part to promote the bill in 2015.

“The Florida Senate’s adoption of SB 552 has been many years in the making. Over the past year, this legislation has been improved to strengthen the protection of Florida’s springs and create stronger water quality standards. Today, a unanimous, bipartisan majority has agreed this comprehensive approach to water policy represents the best path forward for our people and our state,” said AIF VP of State and Federal Affairs, Brewster Bevis.

“We appreciate the leadership of President Gardiner and Senators Dean, Simmons, Hays, Simpson, and Montford.  Their tireless work on this bill has put us one step closer to passing this historic reform.”

Senate passes education, water bills

The sausage-making began in earnest Wednesday morning, as the Florida Senate teed up nine bills for final approval and passed a sweeping $95 million educational policy bill and a water protection measure desired by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

The education bill (SB 672) was sponsored by GOP state Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville, a former schools superintendent. Among other things, it expands scholarships for students with disabilities and awards public and charter schools $10 per K-8 student if they adopt a dress code or require school uniforms.

The dress-code provision generated the most questions, with Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens even saying he was concerned about “shoving school uniforms down the throats” of constituents. He offered an amendment to delete that language, then withdrew it.

The bill then hit a snag when Gaetz, as a last-minute change, wanted to name the scholarships after Senate President Andy Gardiner. He politely rejected that notion, saying he promised to send the House a “clean bill.” But Crisafulli actually called the Senate, saying the idea was OK by him.

Finally, Gaetz asked for ceremonial co-sponsors from the floor and 38 other senators added their names, missing only state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring, who had an excused absence.

In closing, Gaetz said there wouldn’t be lobbyists or protesters interested in the passage of his bill, “just thousands and thousands of Florida families who are waiting quietly, and prayerfully, to see what we will do today,” he said.

It then passed 39-0 and was sent to the House.

The water protection bill (SB 552) was sponsored by state Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican.

According to the Associated Press, it “modifies dozens of areas of Florida law including controlling pollution and restoring natural water flows in springs and rivers; developing alternative water supplies; water-use permitting; and restoring flows and preventing pollution around Lake Okeechobee and the northern Everglades.”

The legislation easily survived several attempts at floor amendments to make it even tougher; environmentalists say it doesn’t go far enough to guard the state’s springs and surface water.

It was supported by the H2O Coalition, an offshoot of the Associated Industries of Florida business lobby, which called the bill “the best path forward for our people and our state.”

Getting a water bill done this session is one of Crisafulli’s top goals before he departs the Legislature: He’s term-limited this year.

The bill passed the Senate 37-0. That makes two priority bills that likely will be the first triumphs the two leaders will advertise as signs of their new harmony after the 2015 regular session that ended in impasse over health care funding.

“What you see is a real trust between the Speaker and me going into this Session that we want to help each other,” Gardiner later told reporters.

Steve Crisafulli advocates for ride-sharing legislation in opening-day speech

Opening the 2016 Legislative Session Tuesday, Speaker Steve Crisafulli listed the priorities that he expects the House to focus on in 2016.

That included an endorsement of Gov. Rick Scott‘s goal of cutting taxes by $1 billion, something that Senate members have expressed discomfort with. He also put in a good word for legislation that would regulate ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft.

“Let’s put the free market to work for Florida families,” he said in his speech. “Let’s cut red tape and create forward-looking, predictable regulatory frameworks to give companies like Uber and Lyft and other disruptive technologies their day in the sun. Florida should be a state where our regulations welcome innovation, not discourage people from finding new and better ways of doing things. If people in Orlando or Miami or Tallahassee want Chair Workman to be their Uber driver, then we should give them that freedom.”

That was a reference to House Rules Committee Ritch Workman from Melbourne, who took a side job as a driver for Uber last year.

Crisafulli’s comments are his most enthusiastic yet about backing a bill that would regulate the ridesharing companies that have been operating in Florida for the past couple of years with no state or local regulations.

Controversy in some local communities has followed Uber and Lyft since they began operating in Florida, however, particularly in Hillsborough and Broward counties.

Uber pulled out of Broward on July 31 to protest the county’s new regulations, which included fingerprint-based FBI background checks and a geography test for drivers.

After harsh criticism from constituents who professed their love for Uber and Lyft, though, the Broward County Commission reversed course in October and dropped the requirements.

In Hillsborough, the county’s Public Transportation Commission has resumed issuing citations against Uber and Lyft drivers for driving without permits, while litigation continues between the county and the two companies. The PTC curtailed issuing those citations as a statement of good will last fall, saying they would hold off on passing any regulations until the Legislature addressed the issue in the Session that began Tuesday.

Last month, the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation approved a measure sponsored by Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson that would establish a new regulatory framework for allowing Uber and Lyft to operate legally in the county.

Those lawmakers said that they hoped the Legislature would approve a statewide bill during the current session. A bill has been introduced by Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz in the House (HB 509) would set insurance requirements for transportation-service drivers while they are logged on, require prospective drivers to undergo criminal background checks and prohibit local governments from imposing their own rules on the app-based companies as they do now for taxi companies and limousine services. The legislation passed in the House Highway and Waterway Safety Subcommittee last month. It’s scheduled to be debated in the House Economics Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

It lacks a Senate sponsor, though, and the perception is that it won’t get much support in that part of the Legislature

“Florida should be a state where our regulations welcome innovation, not discourage people from finding new and better ways of doing things,” Crisafulli said Tuesday. Whether that will translate finally into a statewide policy regarding Uber and Lyft is uncertain.

Steve Crisafulli: House, Senate will pass “3 important bills” by end of week

The state House and Senate will pass three bills by the end of the week, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli told members during his opening remarks Tuesday.

“As we look ahead to the next 60 days, I want us to double-down,” said Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican. “We will do that first by finishing what we started. By the end of the week, the House and Senate will pass three important bills that were part of last year’s Work Plan.”

Crisafulli said the House and Senate will take up statewide water policy legislation (HB 7005 and HB 522); an education bill that expands the personal learning scholarship (HB 7011 and SB 672); and a measure (HB 1359 and SB 962) aimed at creating employment opportunities for people with unique abilities.

“Members, these are three bipartisan bills we can all be proud to support and deliver for Floridians,” said Crisafulli. “Of course, those bills are only a fraction of our work this session.”

Crisafulli’s comments were echoed by Senate President Andy Gardiner, who told lawmakers that sending Scott those measures by the end of the first week of the 2016 Legislative Session “sets the tone.”

Crisafulli used his opening comments to highlight several other issues lawmakers will tackle this session, including tax cuts.

Andy Gardiner promises first 3 bills this Session

On the first day of the 2016 Legislative Session, Senate President Andy Gardiner made a promise that Gov. Rick Scott would get three bills by the end of the week.

Gardiner, an Orlando Republican, spoke during the Senate’s first floor session for 2016, with Scott sitting in the first row.

The first measure is statewide water policy legislation (SB 552/HB 7005) championed by Republican state Sen. Charlie Dean.

According to The Associated Press, it “modifies dozens of areas of Florida law including controlling pollution and restoring natural water flows in springs and rivers; developing alternative water supplies; water use permitting; and restoring flows and preventing pollution around Lake Okeechobee and the northern Everglades.”

Another was an education bill (SB 672/HB 7011) that creates a Personal Learning Scholarship account for children with autism or muscular dystrophy that would provide for a $10,000 lifetime scholarship. It’s backed by state GOP Sen. Don Gaetz.

The third (SB 962/HB 1359) is aimed at employment opportunities for people with unique abilities, focussing on “vocational evaluation and planning, career counseling and guidance, job-site assessment and accommodations, job placement, job coaching, and on-the-job training.” Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome.

Forwarding those efforts to Scott by the end of the first week of session “sets the tone,” Gardiner said.

“Last year was unusual,” he added, referring to the regular session that ended in the House leaving town three days early over a budget impasse, resulting in a special budget session.

Two other special sessions for redistricting ended without agreement on new political maps, resulting in courts making the final decision.

“You have my commitment we will do everything we can,” Gardiner told the chamber, filled with former and current lawmakers, all the statewide elected officials and five Supreme Court justices. “We will work to cut taxes, pass a balanced budget and appropriate unprecedented funding for K-12 education.”

Gardiner, however, said his chamber would “work with” Scott on funding for Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private economic development agency. Scott wants a $250 million fund for business incentives, something the Senate isn’t fully on board with.

By the end of this session, Gardiner said, he hoped every senator will be able to say, “Andy gave me every opportunity to be successful.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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