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Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: Ready To Settle Down?

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January 22, 2017

There was uncertainty in the air this week in Washington, but things were settling down a bit in Florida.

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http://www.northescambia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/floridaweeklly.jpgIn Florida, by comparison, some long-term disputes were either being settled or moving in that direction. The Florida Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the state’s de facto school-voucher system, paving the way for the program to continue paying private school tuition for mostly low-income children. The implementation of the state’s new medical marijuana constitutional amendment was being hammered out — though there remains some controversy about how exactly to do that.

At the same time, some new disputes were also beginning. The Senate, for example, took the first steps toward overhauling the state’s college system — something that will provide plenty of work for the $2 million-plus worth of lobbyists that colleges and universities pay for.

The uncertainty in Florida is only likely to grow in the weeks ahead. The March 7 opening day of the Legislature is less than two months away.

SCHOLARSHIPS SAVED

For more than two years, a lawsuit challenging Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program has worked its way through the court, with the state’s largest teachers union pushing for the system to be overturned and parents and students holding demonstrations to “save our scholarships.”

On Wednesday, the Florida Supreme Court sided with those who want to salvage the program, upholding lower court rulings saying the Florida Education Association and its allies didn’t have the required legal standing to challenge the law creating the scholarships.

In a brief order signed by four justices — Charles Canady, Barbara Pariente, Ricky Polston and Peggy Quince — the court said it would decline to hear the case. Justice R. Fred Lewis dissented, as he supported holding oral arguments. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justice Alan Lawson did not take part in the order.

The union and its allies had argued that the program drains money that otherwise would go to public schools and is unconstitutional for the same reasons that the Florida Supreme Court struck down a previous voucher program.

The current system allows corporations to claim tax credits for donations to organizations that then cover private-school tuition for mostly low-income students.

“The Florida Supreme Court’s decision on the case is also a powerful reminder to entrenched special interests that when policymakers work hand-in-hand with Florida’s families, students win,” said former Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed a bill creating the program in 2001. “It is my hope that opponents of Florida’s efforts to help our most vulnerable students will stop impeding successful reforms and join us in ensuring all students have access to excellent educational options.”

But in a statement issued after the ruling, FEA President Joanne McCall said the union hasn’t changed its mind on the underlying question and would look for other ways to take on the program legally.

“Who is allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the tax credit vouchers?” McCall asked. “This ruling, and the decisions by the lower court, don’t answer that question. We still believe that the tax credit vouchers are unconstitutional, but we haven’t had the opportunity to argue our case in court.”

Meanwhile, supporters of the broad-based school choice movement got another legal victory, when an appeals court upheld the constitutionality of a law allowing the State Board of Education to overturn local denials of charter-school applications.

The 5th District Court of Appeal turned down arguments by the Palm Beach County School Board that the law infringes on the power of local school boards to decide on the creation of charter schools, which are public schools typically run by private entities.

“The Florida Constitution … creates a hierarchy under which a school board has local control, but the State Board supervises the system as a whole,” said the eight-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Alan Forst and joined by judges Carole Taylor and Mark Klingensmith. “This broader supervisory authority may at times infringe on a school board’s local powers, but such infringement is expressly contemplated — and in fact encouraged by the very nature of supervision — by the Florida Constitution.”

GREEN TAPE

To borrow an old phrase about the weather: If you don’t like the state of Florida’s medical marijuana laws, wait awhile. It’s bound to change.

On Tuesday, the Florida Department of Health released a first whack at the rules for a voter-approved constitutional amendment loosening the state’s laws on medical marijuana. By Thursday, a key state senator had released his own ideas about how the industry should be regulated.

The approach by state health officials would essentially maintain current vendors’ stranglehold on the medical marijuana industry — poised to become one of the nation’s top money-makers — by applying current Florida laws and rules to the constitutional amendment approved in November.

That didn’t set well with those who pushed Amendment 2 in the fall.

“The rule is basically ignoring the text of the constitutional amendment at almost every point of the way,” Ben Pollara, campaign manager of the political committee backing the amendment, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

While medical marijuana was already a legal treatment for terminally ill patients in Florida, Amendment 2 authorized marijuana for a much broader swath of patients. More than 70 percent of voters supported the amendment, after a similar proposal narrowly failed to capture the requisite 60 percent approval two years earlier.

Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who was instrumental in the passage of some of the state’s pre-amendment medical marijuana laws, soon enough filed a proposal calling for a growing number of pot licenses and making it easier for doctors to order the treatment for patients.

Under Bradley’s bill, the state could see another 20 marijuana operators — nearly quadruple the seven current licensed “dispensing organizations” — once the number of patients registered for the treatment reaches 500,000.

It also differs with the health department’s rule on how to define “other debilitating medical conditions” — beyond those specifically listed in the constitutional amendment — eligible for the treatment.

The agency’s draft would leave it up to the state Board of Medicine to decide which patients would qualify for treatment under the unspecified conditions.

Bradley’s proposal does not include any language that would restrict doctors’ ability to decide for themselves if patients qualify for marijuana treatment. But his bill does include a definition of “chronic nonmalignant pain,” something not addressed in the amendment, as “pain that is caused by a debilitating medical condition or that originates from a debilitating medical condition and persists beyond the usual course of that debilitating medical condition.”

“There is a question about how we handle generalized chronic pain. This clarifies that,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday.

2 + 2 MILLION

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has long talked about boosting the state’s university system. He’s also mentioned reining in Florida colleges’ abilities to market themselves as a place to get four-year degrees.

The Senate’s plan to help out the universities has already been filed. This week brought the other side of the equation: a bill placing the colleges under a separate 13-member governing board and imposing new restrictions on offering baccalaureate degrees under a Senate bill filed Thursday.

The “College Competitiveness Act of 2017″ (SB 374) — sponsored by Senate Education Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange — would place Florida’s 28 state colleges, which are now under the Florida Board of Education, under a newly created State Board of Community Colleges.

The board would operate similarly to the Board of Governors that oversees Florida’s 12 state universities. It would also appoint a chancellor to oversee the newly renamed Florida Community College System, which is now known as the Florida College System.

“Community colleges are vital to Florida’s K-20 public education system,” Negron said. “With a distinct mission, separate from the role of our K-12 and state university systems, our nationally recognized community colleges deserve their own coordinating board to advocate for the success of the system.”

The bill would limit the growth of baccalaureate degrees at the colleges by imposing a cap, between 2 percent and 4 percent, based on the number of students enrolled in upper-level classes at each school.

The colleges and universities involved in the discussion of the Senate’s several proposals will apparently not suffer from a lack of representation. The schools and related organizations are spending at least $2 million a year on lobbyists, according to a review of new disclosure records required by the House.

The lobbying-fee totals will rise as firms continue to file copies of their contracts with public agencies, including colleges, cities, counties, school boards, hospitals and special districts, under a new rule initiated by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.

A not-all-inclusive roundup of some of the details: $775,000 in annual contracts with nine state universities; another $627,000 from seven of the 28 state colleges, with disclosures pending for at least six other colleges; and contracts with student associations and the Association of Florida Colleges, which represents all 28 of the lower-level schools.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Supreme Court turned down an appeal in a challenge to the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, allowing the voucher-like system to continue.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Early on the big difference is how much media attention you have for everything you do.”—Gov. Rick Scott, on what differences fellow businessman-turned-politician Trump might encounter as he enters the White House. Scott clashed frequently with the media over access in the first few months of his term.

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

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