Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: A Busy First Week Of Committee Meetings

September 29, 2013

Who said nothing ever gets done during the first week of legislative committee meetings?

There was plenty of action this week at the Capitol, even if very little of it happened during votes by the panels that held their first get-togethers in anticipation of the 2014 legislative session. The Democrats deposed one future leader and elected another in about 48 hours. Gov. Rick Scott jettisoned the state’s commitment to a new set of standardized tests, upending several assumptions about the future of education reform efforts in the state.

And lawmakers continued to struggle with how to enforce the novel idea that legislators live in the districts they represent.


http://www.northescambia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/floridaweeklly.jpgFor House Democrats, the week began with a meeting at the Florida Education Association to decide the fate of Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, the caucus’ first choice to lead it after the 2014 elections.

As reporters sat around a table in a downstairs conference room Monday night, all but three of the 44 Democratic members of the House gathered upstairs and behind closed doors to discuss whether Rouson should remain as leader.

Rouson’s perceived wrongdoing included setting up a campaign account for House efforts without telling the Florida Democratic Party or his caucus members, alienating core Democratic constituents like the FEA, and choosing the wrong strategists to help with House campaigns.

After a couple of hours of discussion and debate, current House Minority Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale announced the results: By a 24-17 count, Rouson was out.

“I asked for the opportunity to appear in front of the caucus and explain why I did what I did and the purpose for doing it,” Rouson said after the vote. “The caucus afforded me that opportunity tonight, and I’m very grateful.”

The next election was relatively quick. By Wednesday night, House Democrats were gathering — this time back at the Capitol and back in the open — to choose between Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach and Rep. Alan Williams of Tallahassee as Rouson’s replacement.

Pafford is an unapologetic progressive who had the backing of most of the party’s leadership; Williams made the case that he had a better fund-raising track record. In the end, Pafford won on a 29-12 vote.

Both sides tried to stress the party’s unity and a lack of enmity between the two candidates. Williams several times said “iron sharpens iron,” an apparent reference to Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

Pafford seemed to make the same point in his post-election remarks to the caucus, albeit in different words.

“Our differences are actually what make this minority caucus stronger,” said Pafford, 47. “And we need to take a moment to embrace our differences and make those differences our strength.”


The FCAT has long been a flashpoint in Florida’s education system, with Democrats pointing to the testing system as an example of what’s wrong with the state’s approach to reforming schools. But the FCAT is on its way out, and the only question remaining is what the state will use to replace it.

That decision got a little more mysterious this week, when Scott announced that he was beginning a process that seems designed to extract the state from its involvement in the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Scott, who had previously praised the tests being developed by a multistate consortium, now saw them less as a valid way to measure student learning under the new “Common Core Standards” being adopted by almost every state in the country and more as the vanguard of federal interference in schools. Even if he couldn’t articulate what that federal interference would look like when pressed by reporters.

“If you look at it, it’s their entry point into having more involvement in our education system. … I want to continue that focus on high standards, but we don’t need the federal government intruding in our lives,” Scott told reporters.

That seemed to directly contradict assurances that had come out of Scott’s own education department.

“The federal government does not have a hand in development of the aligned assessments pertaining to CCSS (Common Core),” according to an undated document on the agency’s website. “There are two state consortia responsible for developing Common Core aligned assessments as well as some states that have developed their own assessment programs, such as Kentucky and New York.”

That left the state Department of Education to come up with a new test in time for the 2014-15 school year, set to begin in less than a year. Some Democrats were already skeptical, encouraging the state to take a breather instead of scrambling to set up a testing system that might not work.

“There are other options,” said Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland. “We don’t have to test that year with a standardized test.”


Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, were trying to come up with their own kind of test: a way to determine whether legislators live in the districts they’re supposed to represent. And that would have to clear a “straight-face test,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The issue has been around for years, with reporters and other insiders frequently joking about which lawmakers call Tallahassee or other parts of the state home while claiming residency somewhere else. But it has been brought to the forefront in recent months by press reports and by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who has been crusading on the issue in part because Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, defeated a supporter of Latvala’s 2016 bid for the Senate presidency.

Sachs has faced allegations that she doesn’t live in her South Florida district, but in another home nearby. Sachs at one time claimed to live in a Fort Lauderdale condo owned by a friend but recently changed her voter registration to a condominium in Delray Beach.

Latvala, who chairs the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, seemed unconcerned this week about the possibility that the move could ruffle feathers among House Republicans who might also not hew to the letter of the law.

“I don’t care. The constitution says people need to live in their districts, and they need to live in their districts. If we elected officials can’t abide by the constitution, what kind of example are we?” Latvala said.

Gaetz floated the idea of a joint House-Senate rule, though it’s not precisely clear what making such a rule might entail or exactly what the requirements would be.

“People ought to live among those they represent,” he said. “This is not the British parliament where you get to sort of move to wherever there’s an open seat. You ought to be going to the grocery store, going to synagogue and church and school among the people you represent.”


One thing that does seem clear is that the 2014 legislative session will include new laws dealing with sex offenders.

The push for new legislation comes in the wake of last month’s investigative series by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, which found that the commitment of sexually violent predators under the state’s Jimmy Ryce Act had slowed to a crawl, with nearly 600 offenders released only to be convicted of new sex offenses — including more than 460 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.

Outraged by the reports, Florida lawmakers promised action during hearings this week that covered plea deals, sentencing guidelines, risk assessment, state contracting, treatment evaluations and the monitoring of offenders after release.

“This will not be one bill,” said House Criminal Justice Chairman Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican whose subcommittee held one of the hearings. “This will be many, many bills.”

On Monday, DCF released a series of recommendations intended to lessen the number of sexually violent predators who fall through the cracks of the Jimmy Ryce Act, which requires the state Department of Children and Families to evaluate sex offenders before their releases from prison, confining the most dangerous at the 720-bed Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia.

“I think that the entire Legislature is on board,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

By Friday, one idea had already taken the form of legislation: Members of the House and Senate filed bills that would bar sexual offenders from viewing or possessing pornography, saying the move could help prevent offenders from committing future sex crimes.

“I believe there is a way that we can strike a balance between keeping civil liberties safe and also keeping the public safe from the risk of re-offenders of sexual violence,” said Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat who filed the House version this week.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott announced that the state would withdraw from a multistate consortium developing tests to measure student learning under the new “Common Core State Standards.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Sometimes when you ride by it looks like Fred Sanford’s house. We actually hang the clothes out to dry.”– Corrections Secretary Michael Crews, on the fact that inmates are doing things like sewing and washing dishes to help close the Department of Corrections’ budget deficit.

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida


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