"Long hours and compromises await, and one big question hangs over the last week of Florida's 2007 regular session of the Legislature." "Session races to the finish". See also "Legislators enter session's final stretch without resolving many crucial issues", "Lawmakers brace for final approach of 2007 session" and "Lawmakers have a lengthy to-do list".
"Clash of Style and Substance"?
"The once-unstoppable force of the governor's charm offensive is colliding with House Speaker Marco Rubio's immovable call for massive tax decreases. It's a clash of style and substance: an ever-popular governor vs. an alluringly popular plan to swap sales taxes for property taxes."
Starting today, something or someone will have to start giving, otherwise the clock could run out Friday on the 60-day lawmaking session without a property-tax cut at all. While that appears unlikely, strange possibilities are cropping up, including:"Crist, Rubio split on taxes". See also "Tax cut impasse nears deadline".
- Dueling voter drives between two Republican leaders. Rubio, of West Miami, has already spoken of the need to bypass the very Legislature he controls by asking citizens to gather signatures and then vote on his plan to eliminate virtually all homeowner property taxes in favor of raising the sales tax. Crist, who has shied away from the controversial idea, wants to double the homestead exemption and allow people to transfer homeowner tax savings to new homes. If Rubio backs a citizen initiative, Crist is likely to do the same with a plan of his own.
- Expanding gambling. At one time the idea of allowing more gambling in the state was dismissed by the GOP-controlled Legislature. But the siren call of at least $1 billion raised by allowing parimutuels to offer Class Two slots machines is so promising, it could get a hearing as early as today in the once anti-gambling House.
- A special session devoted to property taxes later in May. Though leaders vowed to cut property taxes in the current session, Rubio has said he is willing to let the session end without agreement if the tax cut is not as deep as he believes it needs to be. He said he's in no rush, and can face property owners. Many people -- including a man Crist showcased at a Thursday press conference -- are concerned they haven't seen the large rate decreases after the Crist-led January overhaul of the insurance market.
The Palm Beach Post editors: "Three property-tax reform proposals are competing in Tallahassee, and Gov. Crist has demanded that local property taxes 'drop like a rock.'"
But the proposals from the Senate, the House and the governor actually might land like a pebble. Missing from the proposals is any reduction in local taxes for schools, which make up the bulk of most tax bills. In fact, the Legislature is raising the one property tax it controls, the Required Local Effort for schools, as it has for years - $458 million for next year. That move has shifted more education spending from Tallahassee to local taxpayers. That's predictable from a Legislature that raids trust funds to finance tax cuts for wealthy Floridians and dumps unwanted expenses onto local government."Why doesn't tax reform start in Tallahassee?".
The Daytona Beach News-Journal editors argue that "the best course of action for Floridians is none at all. The constitutionally mandated Taxation and Budget Reform Commission starts a comprehensive review of all taxes this year. There's no reason for the Legislature to push bad legislation forward, and plenty of reasons to step back and cool off." "Tax stalemate".
"If House members bent on continuing the tax-chopping legacy of former Gov. Jeb Bush prevail, the wealthy with hefty investments in real estate will reap the bulk of the savings. If the centrists who dominate the Senate get their way, the tax relief will be spread more evenly, with less pain to local government budgets." "Republican infighting could delay passage of property tax reform".
"Florida lawmakers were putting the finishing touches on a roughly $71 billion budget Sunday -- even though one half-a-billion-dollar dispute has yet to be resolved. Senate President Ken Pruitt said that the fate of his chamber's push to pump an extra $500 million next year into building roads likely won't be decided until the end of this week, even though budget negotiations must be completed by Tuesday. The Florida Constitution requires a 72-hour "cooling off" period before lawmakers can vote on the state spending plan, and the 2007 legislative session is scheduled to end Friday." "State budget shaping up but $500M hurdle looms". See also "Senate, House finish budgets today" (still no "agreement on pay raises for state employees").
"Lobbyists are Swirling En Masse"
"The House has called an unusual meeting of a council for 1 p.m. Monday to consider an obscure bill by Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, dealing with the ability of the state lottery to patent its own games. But lobbyists are swirling en masse for what is expected to be a major amendment to the bill legalizing so-called video lottery terminals at Florida's 30 existing parimutuel facilities." "The return of video lottery?"
FCAT fans are crowing over the annual increase in writing scores. However, the Palm Beach Post editors point out that "any kid who can pass the math FCAT knows that the writing scores never have added up."
Teachers long ago figured out the FCAT writing formula and drilled it into their students. Write this many paragraphs with this many sentences and choose from this list of colorful action words. Teachers of history and other subjects complained that essay questions they posed on tests started coming back in vacuous FCAT style. But history isn't an FCAT subject. So, tough."The new FCAT panic".
Life is about to get harder, though. As The Post reported last week, starting next year, grades on the writing FCAT will include a multiple-choice section that tests skills such as punctuation, grammar and organization. If the practice multiple-choice questions students answered this year had been included in their actual grades, the results would have been devastating. Rather than 81 percent of Palm Beach County 10th-graders passing the writing FCAT, for example, just 50 percent would have made it. That induces a big gulp, and even more so, because from next year on, 10th-graders will have to pass the writing FCAT to get a diploma.
The new test will end the charade that writing skills can be judged based on a prefab essay. But it will perpetuate the charade that overreliance on the FCAT is the way to run public education in Florida.
It isn't just the writing test that is screwed up: "If a standardized test is to measure how much a student learns each year, then it must be calibrated with precision. But the FCAT, which Florida uses to assess students, teachers and schools, takes an inexplicable detour in high school. Its reading exam makes 10th-graders look as though they suffer amnesia, and Gov. Charlie Crist needs to ask why. Why have state education officials refused to fix their own mistake? This testing irregularity is unmistakable. " "Reading exam flunks the accuracy test".
"A House bill would put an end to the $15-million provided annually to the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Institute in Tampa after this year. The facility was created in 2002 with an eye toward becoming an internationally recognized research center. But lawmakers are still smarting over the way former House Speaker Johnnie B. Byrd Jr. of Plant City rammed this and other legislation through. They are wrong to settle scores by gunning for a facility named after the speaker's father." "Alzheimer's center worth funding right".
"The glitch in the law that let the Virginia Tech shooter buy guns and ammunition despite his history of mental illness isn't an issue just in Virginia -- it's also in Florida's law. Both states have laws to make sure that people who are dangerously mentally ill can't buy guns in stores. But like the Virginia law, Florida's statute fails to include people who have been ordered into outpatient treatment." "Loophole lets dangerously ill buy guns".
Florida's "Educated Poor"
"A rise in college attendance coupled with downsizing, outsourcing and a shortage of high-paying jobs is bolstering the ranks of the educated poor -- people with college degrees who don't earn above the national poverty line, economists said. ... Florida's average of educated poor is slightly higher than the national average." "College-educated poor on rise across Florida, economists say".
"Nearly 15,000 developmentally disabled Floridians do not get the services they need from the Agency with Persons with Disabilities. The Legislature's cost-cutting budget proposal will force more people onto that waiting list."
Agency officials say the problem is that clients of this "payor of last resort" are using more services more often. The budget wonks call it "utilization creep." If the Legislature does not adequately finance the agency, services will be cut, diminishing the quality of life for thousands of disabled Floridians. Call it callousness creep."Remember the disabled".
"State university officials remain hopeful that legislators will authorize a fee of about $1,000 a year to improve undergraduate programs at the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of South Florida. Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn Friday, giving the House and Senate only a few days to consider the plan. And should the measure reach Gov. Charlie Crist, it faces uncertain prospects because of his opposition to new student fees and tuition increases." "Lawmakers still could pass $1,000 college fee". See also "Fee plan splits universities".
The Miami Herald editorial board: "Florida universities have the nation's highest students-to-faculty ratio and one of the lowest graduation rates." "Pondering high cost of higher education".
"The lack of affordable housing in Miami-Dade County -- in this region, really -- is a disgrace that demands far more local and state political leadership than it has gotten so far." "Many share blame for housing crisis".
"Rep. Alcee Hastings, who bowed out of the running for House intelligence committee chair, tells CQ that he made the decision after a lengthy telephone call from former President Bill Clinton who told the Miramar Democrat that he would 'force a rift in the party' if he held out for the position." "Hastings: Clinton convinced me to drop out".
"With a week left in legislative session, Rep. Dennis Baxley is gearing up for a competitive Senate District 3 race." "Baxley makes his move".
The Daytona Beach News-Journal editorial board reviews where we are on election reform: "The Florida Senate bowed to political realism last week, striking an imperfect, but still important, deal to make elections accountable and tamper-resistant."
The Senate appeared on track to approve paper ballots -- senators even worked to ensure the measure's passage by attaching it to a much-coveted House provision that moves up Florida's presidential primary date. But in a committee meeting early in the week, "compromise" provisions started to pile on, and for a while, it seemed the bill would perish in a classic Tallahassee train wreck. It still might, if the House balks at the tangled legislation headed its way."Fair election questions".
The primary move and the paper-ballot language were effectively joined -- along with a host of other provisions. Senators also attached vengeful bombs mimicking legislation that has either been stricken by courts or rejected previously by lawmakers:
- One provision would threaten groups who hold voter-registration drives, such as the Florida League of Women Voters, with fines for relatively minor errors. (If this passes, the League says it will have "no choice" but to suspend its drives.) This is a bad, and probably illegal, idea; one federal district judge has already said as much. Senators ameliorated its impact by capping fines at $1,000 per group, per election. That's still a steep penalty for organizations comprising well-intended volunteers, but not as bad as the previously unlimited scheme.
- Another measure would choke the ability of unions to use dues to fund campaign activities, a move clearly intended to fracture organized labor's political clout.
- The Senate-approved language eliminates some forms of acceptable identification for voters, a move that will hurt low-income and senior voters.
- Moving the presidential primary to the last Tuesday in January would put Florida among the earliest states to hold primaries, but could draw retribution from national Republican and/or Democratic officials. Both have threatened to snub Florida's delegates if the state moves its primary that early.
- Finally, the bill would rescind Florida's resign-to-run law for state and local officials aspiring to hold federal office.
But the most important issue in the bill is clearly the mandate for paper ballots. And that's why the fractured, mangled legislation that limped out of the Senate Friday still counts as a victory.
Here's a heads up on a potential problem: "The next evolution in Florida's ever-changing system of voting will feature something called 'ballot on demand.'"
A citizen at any early voting site would receive a custom optical scan ballot, matching the voter's residence, language and party affiliation. A voter's choices would be marked on an optical scan ballot by filling in an oval next to each ballot question. ..."New ballots, new worries".
But the change worries a lot of local election supervisors, who run Florida elections.
They warn that it's risky to implement an untried system in Florida in a closely watched and high-turnout 2008 presidential election.
"Staffers are unsung heroes of Legislature".
"The Florida Marlins pulled off a remarkable ninth-inning rally to beat the Atlanta Braves one night last week. The team and South Florida officials are hoping for a similar feat this week as the state Legislature decides the fate of the last, critical piece of financing needed for a new $490 million ballpark for the two-time World Series champions. But once again, as was the case five times before, the stadium's fate will be decided in the waning days of the session, which is scheduled to adjourn on Friday." "Vote on Marlins stadium financing again comes late in legislative session".
"Lobbyist, Lawmaker Connections Revealed"
"To see how money, lobbying and personal connections shape Florida law, read between the lines of the Florida Driver’s Handbook." "Driver's handbook deal backfires".
No Lying Zone
The Tallahassee Democrat editors argue that a bill providing that lobbyists, lawmakers and/or staffers who intentionally lie under oath when testifying in legislative committees could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine", is "Unenforceable".
Ask the Guv
"Ask the governor: Supporting sports franchises foster fun, 'real jobs'".