• Ross Spano feels confident about challenge to retain his HD 59 seat in Hillsborough County

    With this being a presidential election year, when Democrats historically show up in greater numbers at the polls, the Florida Democratic Party is targeting several key legislative races in Hillsborough County which they hope to flip from red to blue.

    One of them is the House District 59 seat in Eastern Hillsborough County currently held by Dover Republican Ross Spano, who narrowly defeated Democrat Gail Gottlieb by just 1.6 percent in 2012, the same year that Barack Obama once again won Hillsborough County. In the 2014 election when Obama wasn’t on the ballot, Spano easily vanquished Democrat Donna Lee Fore in his first-bid for reelection.

    The Democrats have high hopes this year with their new candidate, Brandon commercial litigation attorney Rena Frazier. However, Spano looks and sounds confident when he sat down with this reporter in a conference room inside his spacious law offices in Riverview last Thursday.

    In reviewing his four years in office, Spano says he’s most proud and passionate about the work that he’s done on combating human trafficking, which include sponsoring bills enhancing criminal penalties for solicitation, as well as allowing the victims to move on with their lives by allowing judges to vacate certain criminal convictions if the offender can prove that they committed them under duress.

    “If all I ever do is make a difference with some folks like that, that’s good enough for me,” he says humbly.

    Like many Democrats running for the state Legislature in 2016, Frazier has criticized her GOP opponent’s opposition to expanding Medicaid. The Dover Republican dismisses that by saying by criticizing the services that Medicaid can provide, saying that it would allow those who could sign up on the ACA through Medicaid expansion “a false sense that they have medical care.”

    “I want every person to have care,” he says. “But I want it to be quality care, and I think that Medicaid expansion is not quality care.”

    Another hot button issue that Democrats are pressing incumbent Republicans on this fall in swing districts is guns.

    A bill that would allow for the open carrying of firearms passed in the Florida House last season but stalled in a Senate committee. Although he owns two guns, Spano says he’s never been a hunter, and thus they’ve never been a big part of his life. He said he was alarmed when he first heard about the legislation being proposed, and initially opposed it. He had a change of heart when he realized that Florida is an outlier in the country when it comes to open carry, being one of only five states that doesn’t allow for the practice. So he did more research, looking to see if there has been an increases in violence in those states that have adopted the law. He said he couldn’t find any.

    “Then I balanced that with obviously the fact that the 2nd amendment is a pretty fundamental constitutional right,” he says. “And the fact that with open carry, you have to have a concealed carry permit, you have to be 21, and you have to have gone through a rigorous background check.”

    Spano says he believes “strongly” in traditional public schools (boasting that all of his kids have graduated from Strawberry Crest High School in Dover) but he strongly champions school choice. He says he strongly supports giving tax credits for scholarships, and that it’s imperative in particular for parents of children in failing schools to have the opportunity to have them go to better ones. He also supports the bill passed last session that allows parents to transfer their children to any other school in the state, space permitting.

    Spano says he leaning against Amendment 2 – the medical marijuana initiative, once again on the November ballot in Florida – but says he hasn’t completely made up his mind yet. Like most critics of the proposal, he says he fears Florida becoming “another Colorado or California” in terms of the number of dispensaries built and the level of how sick a patient needs to be to have access to the herb. But he also acknowledges how it can bring pain relief for those who are suffering, and cites the case of the pain his late father was in before succumbing to cancer back in 2000. “The last four months of his life he was completely bed-ridden and unconscious, and couldn’t really communicate with us on any meaningful level as a family because he was so drugged up, and I often wonder or not we would have had another three to four months with my dad if he had the ability so I think there’s a benefit.”

    Spano supported the controversial fracking bill that passed the House but died in the Florida Senate . Environmentalists and Democrats have described the bill as a simply yes or no vote on allowing fracking in Florida, but Republicans who supported the measure in the House have said it was much more complicated than that, and have had to explain what part of the elaborate bill they liked in supporting the legislation. Spano says he voted for it because if and when fracking does occur in Florida, the bill sponsored by Fort Myers Republican Ray Rodrigues would have provided state oversight that currently doesn’t exist. “I think the state has a role in ensuring what we’re pumping in the ground is not going to contaminate any groundwater, it’s not going to create  a larger problem,” he says.

    Democrats who support light-rail in Tampa have said they want to lobby the Legislature to pass a law that would allow large cities – and not just counties – to have the ability to place tax referendums on a local ballot. Spano says he would support such a proposal, saying, “If a local government wants to raise a tax they should have the ability to do that.”

    Spano supported Florida native son Marco Rubio in the Republican presidential primaries, but is now pretty solidly a Donald Trump supporter.

    While acknowledging that the New York City real estate mogul at times “says things that makes you really scratch your head and maybe in some cases makes you want to bang your head against the wall,” adds that “in no universe” could he ever support Hillary Clinton. Spano says he fears more a Clinton presidency could result in liberal justices being named to the U.S. Supreme Court who”could jeopardize” religious liberty and Second Amendment issues.

    And as far as Clinton herself? “I don’t trust her as far as I could throw her,” he says, referring to the stories that have surfaced about the Clinton Foundation specifically in recent months.

    District 59’s population is composed of roughly 38,000 Democrats compared to 35,000 Republicans, with 25,000 NPA voters, according to Lobby Tools. There are sizable minority populations in the district, with 13 percent of the population identifying as Black, 18 percent as Hispanic, and 63 percent as white in the latest census.

    Spano has raised more than $207,000 in his race, and has more than $133,000 cash on hand as of September 16. Frazier has raised $148,172, and has slightly more than $96,000 cash on hand.


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  • Over 600 people attend Hillsborough County Political Hob-Nob

    The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce held their 2016 Political Hob Nob at the Hilton Tampa Downtown Monday evening. Fifty-two candidates running in Hillsborough County mingled and met with over several hundred members of the public, which in this case, were generally members of the business and political elite in Tampa.

    Here were the winners of the straw poll, announced at 6:30 p.m.

    President — Hillary Clinton

    U.S. Senate — Marco Rubio

    U.S. House District 12 — Gus Bilirakis

    U.S. House District 14 — Kathy Castor

    U.S. House District 15 — Dennis Ross

    U.S. House District 16 — Vern Buchanan

    Hillsborough County State Attorney — Mark Ober

    State Senate District 18 — Dana Young

    State Senate District 19 — Ed Narain

    House District 58 — Dan Raulerson

    House District 59 — Ross Spano

    House District 60 — David Singer

    House District 61 — Sean Shaw

    House District 63 — Shawn Harrison

    House District 70 — Cory Fornier

    Clerk of the Circuit Court — Eric Seidel

    Property Appraiser — Bob Henriquez

    County Commission District 1 — Sandy Murman

    County Commission District 6 — Tim Schock

    School Board District 1 — Susan Valdes

    School Board District 3 — Cindy Stuart

    School Board District 7 — Stanley Gray

    Tampa City Council District 7 — Luis Viera

    Amendment One — Yes

    Amendment Two -Yes

    Amendment Three — Yes

    Amendment Four — Yes

    Amendment Five — Yes

  • Florida’s Technical Violators: How They’re Affecting State’s Prison Population

    The number of people returning to prison based on technical violations has contributed to an uptick in this year’s new prison admissions. Looking for solutions to that problem came up during this year’s legislative session and is a priority for the head of the Florida Department of Corrections.

    The good news is Florida’s prison population is just under 100,000—a bit lower than predicted.

    “The estimated population for June 2016 was 99, 270, whereas the actual population is 99, 119—for a negative .2-percent error,” said Matthew Hasbrouck, recently at a Criminal Justice Estimating Conference meeting.

    But, Hasbrouck says the reason the predictions were a bit off when it came to new prison admissions was due to what’s called “technical violations.” He focuses on criminal justice issues within the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research (EDR).

    “If you look at the new commitments, where we had an estimated 29, 404…the actual new commitments for fiscal year 2015-2016 were 29, 635 for a 0.8 percent error,” he added. “So, the error in new commitments weren’t as high as for total admissions. Now, this was due to an uptick in the conditional and control release offenders that returned to prison with technical violations.”

    So, what’s considered a technical violation? During this past legislative Session, Incoming Senate President Joe Negron had a few examples.

    “A technical violation would be someone who’s supposed to over a weekend remain at home,” said Negron, at the time. “And, they’re supposed to be home from 7 to 7, and it’s 7:02 and they happen to be in the driveway, and they’re two minutes late. A technical violation would be, they were supposed to make a $30 a month restitution payment, and it’s due on the first of the month, but they didn’t have the money on the first, so they paid it on the second…those kinds of things…things that are technical in the probation order.”

    At the time, some Florida lawmakers weren’t too happy about sending former offenders back to prison on minor infractions. So, they decided to do something about it. Rep. Ross Spano (R-Dover) was one of them.

    “In 2012, the Department of Corrections adopted a new Alternative Sanctioning Program to reduce recidivism through collaboration between courts, probation officers, and law enforcement, and the program has now been adopted in 12 counties within six judicial circuits,” said Spano, during the bill’s last House committee hearing. “This bill would codify that Alternative Sanctioning Program to give a framework for each circuit to adopt the program, if the chief judge in that circuit so chooses. Essentially, the program allows the chief judge or the circuit in consultation with the state Attorney, the public defender, and the Department of Corrections to establish a program to address these technical violations.”

    Spano said his bill would not only reduce the prisoner population, but it could also speed up the court process for these probationers who otherwise could be awaiting a hearing while behind bars. He added there are other advantages as well.

    “A technical violation: failure to appear on time for an appointment with a probation officer,” Spano continued. “An example of a sanction in that instance would be more frequent reporting: So, instead of reporting once a month, you would report three times a month or once a week. So, that would be an example of one of the types of sanctions. So, they differ.”

    Spano’s bill passed both the House and Senate and Governor Rick Scott signed it into law. And, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones says she’s very proud of the new law that just took effect as it was one of her top legislative priorities.

    “We think it’s going to be an important move to start reduce technical violations for probationers coming back to prison, keep them in community where they can continue to get a job, have a paycheck, pay victim restitution, pack back the cost to the court, be with their families, and be closer to the endgame for them to keep them in community and keep them from violating again,” said Jones, months ago.

    But, the Alternative Sanctioning Program is voluntary. And, under the new law, a judge also has the discretion to reject the lesser penalty.


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  • In Tampa, Rick Scott highlights the more than $6 million going into programs combating human trafficking in Florida

    Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and state Rep. Ross Spano were among the public officials who gathered at an event in Tampa Monday that celebrated legislation passed this year to combat human trafficking in Florida over the next fiscal year.

    Speaking at Mary Lee’s House, a nonprofit child protection and advocacy center serving more than 100 children every week in West Tampa, those public figures were joined by dozens of state and private sector employees who are in the business of reducing the level of trafficking in the state.

    That includes $1 million for Selah Freedom, a Sarasota-based national nonprofit that focuses on ending sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. In addition to children, Selah Freedom has a program for women between the ages of 18-26, a demographic frequently overlooked, says Elizabeth Fisher, Selah Freedom’s president and CEO.

    Selah Freedom also helped to create the Turn Your Life Around program (TYLA), a diversion program so women involved in sex trafficking don’t get charged with up to three charges of prostitution, which triggers a felony conviction. “With a felony, you can’t get a job, you can’t do anything, so our girls are stuck in the system,” Fisher said.

    Other local centers getting funding include Bridging Freedom in Tampa, which acquired $1.2 million in funding, and the Florida Dream Center in St. Petersburg, which received $250,000 for the coming fiscal year.

    Also speaking at the Monday morning press conference was a woman identified only as “Brandy,” a 35-year-old woman who says she lived on the streets of Florida for 12 years.

    “I also felt very ashamed of myself at those times in my life and never thought life would be anything else but,” she said of her time where she was trafficking. She says that it all changed for her when she became involved with the TYLA program at Selah Freedom.

    Scott also recently signed legislation which establishes harsher penalties for human traffickers and protects victimized children from being convicted of criminal charges.

    Bondi said currently, her office has 76 pending defendants and 81 open investigations when it comes to human trafficking in Florida. “These victims are young girls, and now we know young boys, too,” Bondi said.

    The attorney general said those children or young adults are contending with so many issues when they’re able to escape sex trafficking. Many of them are runaways, moved from foster homes, living on the streets, in some cases addicted to drugs and severe emotional issues.

    Bondi said that in some cases, such people have been raped, “Twenty to 40 times a day. A DAY. Seven days a week. That is human trafficking. It’s real; it’s going on around our country.”

    Dover Rep. Spano said it was fine to celebrate what’s been achieved, but said there’s far too much work for advocates to congratulate each other too aggressively.

    “We have a lot of work to do,” Spano said. “There are still children and adults out there being held against their will. There are still venues and ways in which the bad guys are taking advantage of technology , that we’re having a hard time keeping up with.”


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  • Hundreds Unite in the Fort Harrison to Bring Awareness to Human Trafficking

    CLEARWATER, Fla., June 08, 2016 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — On the 4th of June, some 250 guests attended the Gentlemen’s Ball Against Human Trafficking at the Church of Scientology-owned Fort Harrison in downtown Clearwater, Florida.  The event was produced by Christopher King, grandson of Blues legend B.B. King and founder of the non-profit Gentlemen’s Course. The event raised over $10,000 for Miracles Outreach, a non-profit shelter for human trafficking victims, and the Gentlemen’s Course.

    A photo accompanying this announcement is available at http://www.globenewswire.com/NewsRoom/AttachmentNg/bf6da259-595d-4d7d-ae5c-4c3546b34a4c

    In his speech, Mr. King informed the guests of his non-profit organization, the Gentlemen’s Course, which educates youth on proper etiquette and attire and incorporates the United for Human Rights program.  Mr. King addressed the issue of human trafficking and Florida’s prominent role in this burgeoning international crime. As a part of this, a Public Service Announcement from the United for Human Rights program was shown – No Slavery.

    Mr. King said, “Human trafficking involves many facets of Human Rights violations. It violates the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, article 4, No Slavery.”

    Angela Blaylock from Fortune 500 company, Molina Healthcare, spoke about Molina’s actions to partner with and support non-profit organizations in the community.

    Florida House Representative, Ross Spano, spoke next.  He spoke very passionately about what he does from his position to help handle human trafficking. This included introducing legislation to protect victims’ rights; ensuring that victims are not prosecuted as criminals.

    The event concluded with live entertainment featuring Joanne Edwards, performing a set of R&B classics that had the audience up on their feet.

    Upon departing the Fort Harrison, guests received complimentary gift bags with a booklet listing all 30 human rights, as laid out by the Universal Declaration of Human rights, and a DVD giving an introduction to those who wish to learn more about their human rights.

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  • Playoff ban for new opt-in FHSAA members sparks ire

    TAMPA — On April 14, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law an education bill that, in part, established changes to the present structure of the Florida High School Athletic Association, forcing the organization to allow schools to opt-in to membership on a per-sport basis.

    Now the FHSAA — which has been in charge of high school athletics in Florida since 1920 — is fighting back with what some are calling “retaliatory” policies, and state legislators are threatening to take action.

    Before the passage of House Bill 7029, schools were required to be full members of the FHSAA for all the sports in which they competed. The legislation, which goes into effect July 1, states that not only can private schools now join on a per-sport basis, but the FHSAA “may not discourage a private school from simultaneously maintaining membership in another athletic association.”

    Still, in the FHSAA’s application for private school membership for the 2016-17 school year, it provides a chart listing the benefits of “full membership” and “partial membership,” with the latter not including the option of participating in the state playoffs. Essentially, opt-in members will be treated like independent schools, which have to join a secondary athletic association in order to participate in postseason play.

    “That language has never changed going back to 1999,” said Kyle Niblett, FHSAA public relations specialist. “If they’re a partial member, none of their sports can compete in the state playoffs.”

    As far as Rep. Ross Spano is concerned, that policy is in direct violation of the new law.

    “There’s not even the slightest hint of a question in my mind about what their intent is,” said Spano, one of the backers of the law. “From the very beginning, it was clear that their major concern over this bill was the impact it would have on their ability to control and monopolize high school athletes.”

    The Sunshine State Athletic Conference was originally formed in 2008 to provide independent schools — mostly charter and private schools that elected not to be in an FHSAA district because of their small size — the opportunity to compete in a football postseason, and it has since grown to include other sports.

    Tampa Bay schools Zephyrhills Christian (girls and boys basketball, football), Bishop McLaughlin (football) and Keswick Christian (football) are members of the organization. And while they are allowed to compete in the SSAC playoffs, the FHSAA grants them no additional games past the 10-game regular season.

    SSAC president Stuart Weiss said he has been to Tallahassee and involved in monitoring potential legislation that would benefit the kind of small private and charter schools his organization represents. They were encouraged by the passage of the legislation, he added, but quickly disappointed by the FHSAA’s interpretation.

    “We just feel that’s unfair. We’ve tried to work within FHSAA. This is not our desire. This is not the way we wanted it to go. But we had to do this to seek fairness for our members,” he said. “Everybody who participates in sports just wants a chance to compete and win something.”

    Spano, a Republican who has represented District 59 (Hillsborough County) since he was elected in 2012, said he initially got involved in supporting the bill at the request of a contact who works closely with the SSAC.

    “When he asked me to run the bill, I said, ‘This sounds like something I can really be passionate about,’ ” Spano said. “I don’t have a problem getting behind an issue where you have the little guys, the little schools, trying to participate in an environment that’s fun and safe.”

    But based on the FHSAA’s response, he said, the concept of fairness has once again been muddled.

    The legislature has been in talks with the FHSAA lately about changing their stance, and Spano said he’s an optimist, hoping for cooperation with the nearly century-old governing body. If that doesn’t happen, though, he said litigation or disbanding the organization could be a consideration.

    “The question is, can we or should we be expected to continue to try over and over and over again to work with an organization that clearly does not respect the authority of the legislature? My answer to that is no,” Spano said. “If they’re not going to work with us in good faith … then we need to go in a different direction.”


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  • Prostitution Penalties in Florida Could Become More Costly

    TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — People who solicit prostitutes would face increased penalties under a bill that passed the Florida House.

    The bill that passed unanimously Thursday attempts to deal with prostitution by going after people who pay for sex.

    The penalty for a first offense would increase from a second-degree misdemeanor to a first-degree misdemeanor. A second offense would be a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a third offense would be a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

    First offenders would also have to take a course on the dangers of prostitution and perform community service.

    Republican Rep. Ross Spano said his bill (HB 465) is a message that people are not commodities to be bought and sold.

  • Lawmakers’ budget gives Bay area projects a windfall

     — A legislative session that started out with early victories for House and Senate leaders ended in some disappointment for Gov. Rick Scott, but it provided broad-based tax relief and millions for construction projects that stand to benefit the Tampa area.

    Local lawmakers played a major role in crafting the $82.3 billion budget, making sure it includes money for statewide and Tampa area projects.

    They also made sure there is money to close the gap in the budgets of clerks of courts statewide, increase money for affordable housing programs and at-risk teenage girls, provide additional spending for public and charter schools, and ensure tuition for thousands of developmentally disabled children.

    “We tried to take the long-term view of the budget process and fiscal condition in the state,” said Tom Lee, a Republican from Brandon and chairman of the Senate budgeting process. “We wanted to make sure we live within our means and leave sufficient revenues for future chairs and presiding officers in their administrations.”

    Lee was pleased the Legislature secured money for local projects and supported the priorities of the State University System’s board of governors.

    He was proudest of the $22.5 million secured for the Morsani College of Medicine. Combined with an allocation from last year, Lee secured $39.5 million for the $159 million project that will rebuild the University of South Florida institution as the linchpin of downtown Tampa redevelopment.

    “That is probably my single crowning achievement in my two years as chairman of the appropriations committee,” Lee said.

    Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, got an early personal win when the governor signed the Educational Options bill into law. The law provides educational and job training for children and adults with disabilities.

    It also provides $73 million for the Personal Learning Scholarship Account, renamed the “Gardiner Scholarship Program,” $8 million for the Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Program and $3 million in startup costs to colleges and universities for the Residence Access Grant Program.

    The budget also has $12.9 million to cover projected budget deficits for the 67 clerks of court.

    And it includes $2.35 million in new funding for the PACE Center for Girls so it can continue operating REACH, an after-school outreach program for girls in Hillsborough, Duval and Broward counties, and expand enrollment at its 19 centers around the state.

    Another measure signed by Scott was sponsored by Tampa Democrats Sen. Arthenia Joyner and Rep. Ed Narain and provides relief for survivors of children who were buried at the former Dozier School for Boys. They’ll get up to $7,500 for reburial of the bodies exhumed and identified by USF anthropologists. The bill also sets up a committee to create a memorial for victims of abuse at Dozier.

    “This is the start of healing for our state,” Narain said, thanking Joyner for coming up with the idea and former Gov. Bob Martinez of Tampa for supporting it.

    Narain also saw the successful passage of a law to remove Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith from the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, sponsored the Senate version.

    And Narain succeeded in getting $1.2 million to relocate the Tampa Heights Youth Development and Community Center away from the path of highway construction.

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    Other budget allocations for the Tampa area include $11 million for the Pasco-Hernando State College Performing Arts Education Center, $10 million for St. Petersburg College Student Services Economic Development, $2.75 million for a regional transportation training center at Hillsborough Community College and $6 million for repairs at the South Shore and Dale Mabry campuses, and $8 million for Florida Polytechnic to build its Applied Research Center and other projects.

    There’s also $1 million for the $10 million renovation of the Tampa Theatre, $2 million for Ruth Eckerd Hall renovations, $1 million to repair the Lowry Park Zoo manatee hospital pool and $1 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium dolphin pool.

    The budget also has $1 million for the Florida Conservation and Technology Center, a joint initiative by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, TECO Energy and the Florida Aquarium. The center expands on the popular TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach.

    There’s also $3.49 million to help students attending Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Bradenton with their tuition.

    The budget doesn’t include $5 million for major renovations at the riverfront Julian B. Lane Park in Tampa, which Mayor Bob Buckhorn lobbied for in Tallahassee.

    Also absent are raises for most state workers, a $3 billion revenue-sharing deal with the Seminole Tribe and a $250 million economic development package that was a Scott priority.

    “It is the elephant in the room,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, who as chairman of the Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Committee tried to push through the economic development package — which included language to reboot a film and television development incentive fund.

    Latvala said it was for him personally “one of the most disappointing” parts of the session.

    On the plus side, Latvala negotiated a win for 38 counties that had protested for more than a decade about charges by the Department of Juvenile Justice that they say are too high. Latvala got the 23 counties with outstanding lawsuits against juvenile justice to stand down and accept his bill in lieu of any financial settlement they may have received from the courts.

    Latvala also helped get more money this year for several affordable housing programs and pushed through a measure that would let homeowners — especially those in the “sinkhole alley” region of Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties — buy limited sinkhole insurance policies.

    One major disappointment for both sides in the negotiations was lawmakers’ failure to ratify a compact with the Seminole Tribe signed by Scott in December and a companion bill that would have allowed some expansion of slots and card games. The measures also would have allowed some pari-mutuels to phase out live horse and dog racing.

    The effort became mired in negotiations with horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons over how much expansion of gambling would be allowed.

    Now, billions in gaming revenue that would go to the state are up in the air, as are plans by the tribe to spend $1.8 billion and create thousands of jobs expanding its Tampa and Hollywood resorts.

    The legislation also would have helped resolve a lawsuit the tribe filed last year against the state over whether it has the authority to continue operating blackjack games. A hearing in that suit is scheduled for October.

    “The tribe is going to take time to carefully consider all of its options moving forward,” said Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminoles.

    Also lost in the shuffle was a measure to legalize fantasy sports games. The sponsor of an amendment to the gambling bill withdrew it.

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    Several significant policy measures were approved, some already signed into law by Scott, including reforming death penalty sentencing procedures, providing more school choice options, overhauling alimony procedures, fighting human trafficking and providing mental health treatment instead of jail for some convicts.

    “It was a good session for civil rights,” said Michelle Richardson, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

    A critical bill already signed into law last week attempts to fix the state’s death penalty sentencing process, which was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in December. The court found that a judge sentencing a person to death on the recommendation of a simple majority of jurors was unconstitutional.

    The new law requires a 10-2 vote of a jury to impose the death sentence. Adding urgency for lawmakers was the number of cases pending before the Florida Supreme Court since the December decision, said Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, who sponsored the House version of the bill.

    People in prison awaiting trial, those already in court or being arraigned, and those on direct appeal “want to know what rules to play by,” said Spano, who asked Speaker Steve Crisafulli to take the lead on the legislation.

    The ACLU argues that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires a unanimous jury decision for a death sentence, but it said the change from a simple majority to 10-2 will save lives.

    “You will still see people challenging the existing statute,” Richardson said.

    Even more important to Spano was the human trafficking bill he filed, which Scott has signed into law. Spano has been working on bills combating human trafficking for several years. The law protects children from being prosecuted for prostitution, cracks down on massage parlors and raises penalties for trafficking.

    Another big win for civil liberties is a bill by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, which says law enforcement agencies can only seize assets after a property owner is arrested and the property is thought to have been used in or gained through a criminal enterprise. It also requires the agency to demonstrate probable cause, with some exceptions. The measure was still awaiting the governor’s signature.

    Richardson sees these steps as a “harbinger of criminal justice reform in the future.”

    One bill that didn’t make it but cleared four committees would have stopped suspending the driver’s licenses of people who can’t pay their traffic tickets and fines. It was sponsored by Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa.

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    A hard-fought measure by Lakeland Republicans Kelli Stargel in the Senate and Colleen Burton in the House places restrictions on abortion clinics, redefines the meaning of a third trimester and requires abortion clinics’ physicians to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

    The bill also prohibits the state from contracting with clinics for services like screening for disabilities and cancer and testing for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases if they also perform abortions or are associated with organizations that do provide abortions. That would effectively cut off funding to Planned Parenthood centers that have contracts with the state, including one in St. Petersburg and one in Tampa. The bill awaits action from the governor.

    Immigration advocates claimed a victory in successfully blocking nine bills they called “anti-immigrant,” including legislation that would have forced county sheriffs to help federal immigration officials detain suspected unlawful immigrants and seek to block refugees from entering Florida.

    “During this session we demonstrated that immigrants in Florida work to sustain Florida’s economy and that we count in our communities,” Francesca Menes, policy director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said in a news release.

    Another measure they viewed favorably, which would have provided health care to 17,000 children of immigrants, was approved by the House, but the Senate took no action.

    The NRA came up short this session with the death of bills to allow people to carry guns in the open, on college campuses and in airports. Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, were sponsors of the airport gun bill, which would have allowed people with concealed weapons permits to bring guns into areas of airports not under federal jurisdiction.

    Rouson got through a bill to ban backyard shooting ranges; the measure was approved and signed into law by Scott.

    Simpson succeeded in getting through a bill that criminalizes threats made against law enforcement officers, state attorneys, firefighters and other public officials. It also makes it a felony to submit false reports concerning the use of a firearm in a violent manner.

    Another bill sponsored by Simpson consolidates the state’s land acquisition procedures into one statute and makes it easier for the Southwest Florida Water Management District to sell off small parcels of land if they are not contiguous with larger habitats and have no significant environmental value. The House version by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, was approved by both chambers.

    Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, got a transparency in health care bill approved. It requires hospitals and insurance companies to publicize estimated costs for health care services and comes with a $4 million appropriation. The measure was approved and sent to the governor.

    Bruce Rueben, president of the Florida Hospital Association, lauded the measure, which the association helped develop.

    “This bill will help people make better informed health care decisions,” Rueben said.


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  • Florida lawmakers send massive ‘school choice’ bill to Gov. Rick Scott

    Florida lawmakers struck a compromise Friday to pass a sweeping “school choice” education package that includes significant changes to how the state’s 650 charter schools can get funding for construction and maintenance projects.

    As part of a last-minute deal, the House rejected efforts by the Senate to crack down on businesses using state capital dollars to profit from charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

    The Senate gave up on its plan to ban such “private enrichment” in trade for the House accepting a revised formula that weights capital funding in favor of charter schools that serve mostly impoverished students and those with disabilities. That was, in part, what charter schools were intended for when they were established in the 1990s.

    But Democrats in both chambers blasted House Republicans for not agreeing to what they called a “legitimate” solution to safeguard public money given to charter schools.

    “This is very bad and the lack of accountability is really amazing,” Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said. “There are some good charter schools — they’re engaging in innovation — but many of the charters are engaging in imitation and bringing nothing new to the game except plundering the public treasury.”

    An Associated Press analysis a few months ago found that, since 2000, the state has lost $70 million in capital funding given to charter schools that later closed.

    How charter schools are eligible for state capital funding was a sticking point of House Bill 7029, which House and Senate leaders negotiated well into early Friday afternoon — the last day of the 2016 legislative session.

    The bill has been revised multiple times within the past couple weeks, with re-writes ballooning the bill to, at one point Thursday, 168 pages.

    The Senate passed the final version by a 29-10 vote. The House then passed it by a 82-33vote. Both votes were mostly along party lines.

    The multi-faceted bill now goes to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who still needs to sign it into law.

    The package also includes measures limiting school districts’ spending on capital projects, allowing open enrollment for all K-12 public school students, granting immediate eligibility for high school athletes who transfer schools, and codifying public college and university performance funding in state law, among a dozen other policy proposals.

    A victim of the negotiations was efforts to improve elementary school reading instruction, which the House wanted but which weren’t fully vetted through the Senate.

    “Quite frankly, I’m befuddled and dumbfounded why the Senate objected to it,” Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, said.

    The fate of HB 7029 was thrown into question on Thursday evening, when the House stripped entirely the Senate’s charter school capital funding reforms from its amended version — provisions that senators emphasized were important for them.

    At the time, House education budget chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, blasted the Senate’s version for not having a formula — like he said his proposal had — “that was sustainable, predictable and de-politicized.”

    Fresen’s proposal would have changed some eligibility criteria for charter schools, in some cases, to make it easier for them to get capital funding. It also would have required school districts to share a portion of local tax dollars with charter schools.

    In contrast, Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz’s plan barring “private enrichment” would have made it more difficult for charter schools to qualify for capital dollars. Charters would have been ineligible if they leased their facility from a private or for-profit entity or one with any affiliation to the charter school.

    “That was not possible in these negotiations, if we were to get the rest of the bill,” Gaetz, the Senate education budget chairman, said on the Senate floor Friday.

    He said that, in private negotiations, the House raised concerns that the Senate’s plan could have unintended consequences for well-intentioned individuals —which is why, Gaetz said, the House wouldn’t accept it.

    “I don’t believe that that’s because the House of Representatives had some lapse of morals or value but, rather, because there are circumstances in the charter school movement where people have had to dig into their own pockets for facilities that schools use,” Gaetz said.

    However, Democratic senators implied ulterior motives for why House leaders didn’t accept the plan.

    Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, asked senators “to be frank” and questioned whether the House’s reluctance to ban charter schools’ “private enrichment” was because of “individuals who indirectly or directly gain personal wealth based on charter school construction.”

    Several lawmakers have close ties to charter schools, such as Fresen. He is a land consultant for Civica, an architecture firm with a specialty in building charter schools. Many of those schools were built for Academica — which has been described as the largest charter school management company in Florida and which counts Fresen’s brother-in-law and sister as executives.

    Fresen has said no conflict exits.

    “[We] go home and hear the stories about how everybody just believes we’re in this for our own personal enrichment, to line our own pocketbooks,” Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said. “And here we have an idea brought forward by the Senate that’s entirely legitimate. If there’s some issues with it, the House should have addressed those.”

    It appears only a single — but consequential — line of Fresen’s plan to change charter schools’ capital funding made it into the final version of HB 7029.

    He slipped it in to the House’s counter-offer on Thursday and the Senate agreed to it. The provision makes charter schools eligible for capital dollars a full year earlier — by requiring them to operate first for only two years, instead of three.

    Fresen didn’t disclose that provision when explaining the bill to House members on Thursday but briefly acknowledged it on the floor Friday.

    The slight change could potentially serve to help dozens of charter schools statewide.

    According to the Florida Department of Education, 55 charter schools opened in 2014. As long as they meet other criteria, those schools would be eligible for state capital dollars as early as next school year.

    One of those is Classical Preparatory School in Pasco County, which was founded by Anne Corcoran. She is the wife of Rep. Richard Corcoran — a Land O’Lakes Republican who is the current appropriations chairman and in line to be the next speaker of the Florida House.

    Anne Corcoran has made no money from her affiliation with the school; she has volunteered numerous hours of time and donated about $11,000 of her own money to help it get off the ground, according to records provided by the school.

  • House passes high-school sports bill

    One of several bills aimed at overhauling the state’s oversight body for high school athletics was passed by the Florida House of Representatives on Monday.

    The House passed the measure (HB 31) by state Rep. Ross Spano, a Dover Republican, on a 109-0 vote.

    Its main provision is that it would allow private schools to join the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) on a per-sport basis, rather than signing up for a full membership that would require a school to play by the group’s strict rules in all athletics.

    In recent years, lawmakers have regularly challenged the organization that oversees 32 male and female high-school sports, including player eligibility in each.

    For instance, the bill includes a provision to “provide a process for the resolution of student eligibility disputes which includes the opportunity to use an informal conference procedure.”

    Conservative lawmakers targeted the association after constituents complained about their children not being able to play certain sports because of strict transfer rules, especially when youngsters change schools but don’t move to another district.

    The bill now moves to the Florida Senate. The 2016 Legislative Session ends Friday.


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