HOUSE BILLS WILL LEAVE EARLY LEARNING SYSTEM AND CHILDREN BEHIND
Four different bills moving through the House threaten the very nature of Florida’s early system and seek to reduce the program to little more than child care. While the State of Florida has spent nearly two decades putting measured systems of accountability into our K-12 public schools, the proposed legislation will propel Florida backwards, tarnishing our reputation as a leader in the types of education reform that have resulted in rising student success.
The related bills all seek to make sweeping changes to Florida’s early learning system by removing or watering down educational components, decreasing School Readiness standards, removing providers’ ability to conduct screenings, significantly reducing the number of Early Learning Coalitions and loosening accountability for early learning providers.
It is anticipated that these bills will be consolidated as they continue through the legislative process and each could serve as the vehicle through which the House intends to redefine our early learning system. Early indications show the Senate does not have the appetite for such wholesale changes, but it is critical for early learning advocates to let both their Senators and Representatives know that the proposals in the House would cripple Florida’s ability to adequately prepare children to learn.
The House Appropriations Committee approved a spending plan on Wednesday that would cut more than 4,700 state positions, limit some health care services and raise college tuition, while freeing up more than $1 billion in general revenue for education sought by Gov. Rick Scott. The plan approved a $69.2 billion budget bill and provides funding for schools and avoids the deep reductions to hospitals as proposed by Gov. Rick Scott. The plan would set aside $45 million in general revenue to keep state employee health insurance premiums at their current levels, and would allow for performance-based bonuses if agencies generate extra money.
House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Matt Hudson (R-Naples) stated that his focus was on eliminating positions that had not been filled in more than four months and, as a result, health and human services agencies would see a reduction of more than 1,400 positions. The Department of Children and Families would lose almost 600 of these positions.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-Merritt Island) stated Wednesday that he expects budget allocations to be distributed next week and he warned that failure to seek savings through prison privatization could force cuts in other areas of the budget. He further indicated that the Senate is moving forward with the revenue estimates already in hand. He also cited news reports that consumer confidence is up, and he said that economic “pep” may help increase state revenue.
Senate Chairman Joe Negron (R-Palm City) announced on Thursday that his allocation was larger than anticipated, which will result in him only needing to cut $350 million. He stated that he did not intend to reduce children’s programs, particularly children’s mental health and substance abuse or hospital or nursing home rates.
STATE & LOCAL REVENUES
Related to Property Taxes
A proposed “super” homestead exemption for property taxes cleared its first House committee Wednesday, making way for the Senate to advance its version. The measure proposes a constitutional amendment that would create new tax exemptions on the first $400,000 in value of homestead property, and gives lawmakers the authority to adjust the exemptions. Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) is leading the effort in the Senate. Rep. Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford), the sponsor of HJR 1289, which cleared the House Finance and Tax Committee, stated that, “This is an opportunity to get less government, lower taxes and hopefully spur the real estate market.”
Reps. Fred Costello (R-Ormond Beach) and George Moraitis (R-Fort Lauderdale) joined the panel’s Democrats opposing the measure. Further, Amendment 4 would lower the cap on increases in assessed property values for non-homestead and commercial property, and creates a new exemption aimed at first-time buyers. It would also provide that tax assessments cannot increase if property values decrease. Sen. Simmons is sponsoring a measure that would withdraw Amendment 4 in favor of his proposal, but he said he was willing to move toward the House’s approach if it would help the measure advance.
Several other property tax exemption proposals received committee endorsements. CS/HJR 55 by Rep. Jeanette Nunez (R-Miami) proposes an amendment to the State Constitution to authorize counties and cities to limit assessed value of homesteads of low-income senior citizens. The bill received approval by the House Community and Military Affairs Subcommittee and now goes to the House Economic Affairs Committee. The Senate companion, SJR 838 by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R-Miami), passed the Senate Community Affairs Committee and will now be heard before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Senate Community Affairs Committee endorsed SJR 1740 by Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Miami) authorizing the Legislature to allow counties and cities to grant an additional homestead exemption not to exceed the assessed value of the property to an owner 65 years of age or older, who has lived on the property for no less than 20 years, and whose income does not exceed $15,000. The implementing bill, SB 1738, was also passed by the committee, and will be heard next by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
CS/HJR 93 by Rep. Shawn Harrison (R-Tampa) passed the House Community and Military Affairs Subcommittee. The bill proposes a state constitutional amendment to allow the Florida Legislature to provide property tax relief to the surviving spouse of a military veteran who died from service-connected causes while on active duty or the surviving spouse of a first responder who died in the line of duty. The implementing bill, CS/HB 95 by Rep. Harrison was also approved. The Senate companion bills, CS/SJR 1056 and CS/SB 1058 by Sen. Jim Norman (R-Tampa), will be heard next week in Senate Community Affairs.
The House Finance and Tax Committee endorsed a legislative priority of Gov. Scott, HJR 1003 by Rep. Eric Eisnaugle (R-Orlando). Another state constitutional amendment, this proposal would remove the $25,000 cap on the amount of property tax exemption for tangible personal property and allow the Legislature to specify the amount of exemption. The accompanying implementing bill, HB 1005
by Rep. Eisnaugle also passed by the committee, would create an additional property tax exemption of tangible personal property of up to $25,000 of taxable value. This would provide an additional exemption above the current $25,000 for assessed values between $25,000 and $50,000. The Revenue Estimating Conference projects the fiscal impact on local government revenues based on current millage rates would be $20.1 million beginning in FY 2013-14, increasing to $20.3 million in FY 2014-15, and $20.6 million in FY 2015-16.
Relating to Special Districts
On Wednesday, HB 107 relating to Special Districts filed by Rep. Matthew Caldwell (R-Fort Myers) was passed favorably by the Economic Affairs Committee by a 17-0 margin and now moves to the floor for consideration. This bill revises provisions relating to merger and dissolution procedures for special districts; provides for certain merger and dissolution procedures to include referenda; provides that such provisions preempt certain special acts; provides for local governments to assume indebtedness of, and receive title to property owned by, special districts under certain circumstances; deletes provisions relating to conditions under which merger of independent special districts or dependent fire control districts with other special districts is effective and conditions under which merged districts are authorized to increase ad valorem taxes; and revises criteria by which special districts are declared inactive by a governing body. Sen. Michael Bennett (R-Bradenton) has filed a similar bill, SB 0192, which was also heard on Wednesday by the Budget Subcommittee on Finance and Tax where it passed favorably by a 5-0 margin. The next stop will be the Senate Budget Committee.
Relating to Assessment of Property
HB 133 filed by Rep. James Frishe (R-St. Petersburg) passed favorably by the Community and Military Affairs Subcommittee by a 13-0 margin on Tuesday. The bill is scheduled to be heard, but with no votes taken, during the Office of EDR’s Revenue Estimating Impact Conference on Friday. This bill relates to the assessment of residential and non-homestead real property and excludes the value of certain installations, changes, or improvements made after the specified date from the assessed value of residential real property; requires a nonrefundable filing fee for a petition to the value adjustment board; and repeals provisions relating to property tax exemptions for renewable energy source devices.
Relating to the Formation of Local Governments
CS/SB 692 filed by Sen. Michael Bennett (R-Bradenton) revises the deadline for submission of a feasibility study of a proposed incorporation of a municipality and revises a requirement for the content of the study. On Thursday, the bill was placed on the Special Order Calendar for next Tuesday.
Much of this week was taken up by the four School Readiness bills now moving in the House. The most onerous of these four bills is PCB BCAS 12-04 which passed this week in the Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee. The second bill is HB 5103, which was amended and passed in the full House Appropriations Committee this week. Rep. Coley, the manager of this bill did accept several amendments that were proposed by child advocates. The two remaining bills are HB 7055 by Rep. Gaetz and PCB KCOS 12-01 by Rep. Fresen. At this time there does not seem to be the same interest in these issues in the Senate.
Specific bill action:
On Tuesday, the House Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee took up a bill on Early Learning programs focused on an early learning PCB. The draft bill is a complete rewrite of the School Readiness Act with negative implications for educational standards for children. A strike all amendment was presented by Rep. Ahearn which revised eligibility to allow school-age care for TANF families, or children at risk of abuse and neglect. School age care for children from low-income families is still a non-allowable expenditure under this bill, as is serving children with disabilities that do not qualify under the income eligibility requirements. Additionally, the strike all makes clear that child care providers will design or select the curriculum of their choice for demonstrating the implementation of the state’s child development standards. The bill greatly reduces the quality and educational criteria from the early learning process and substantially reduces the role of the Early Learning Coalitions (ELCs). These measures would have substantial repercussions for early learning. Despite more than 50 oppositional comments, the PCB passed favorably with three members opposed. Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St Petersburg) requested and was granted the role as co-sponsor to the bill as it moves forward.
HB 5103 was presented this week by Rep. Marti Coley (R-Marianna) in the full budget Appropriations Committee. This bill directly impacts the state’s School Readiness program by revising the number of existing ELCs from 31 to 25, and the minimum number of children that each coalition must serve; deletes provisions for establishment of payment rates; revises eligibility criteria for enrollment of children; revises priorities by which children are enrolled; limits expenditures for administrative activities, quality activities, and nondirect services; and provides for payment of school readiness providers according to calculations of payment rates. Rep. Coley presented five amendments to the bill. The amendments provided flexibility for spending under specific caps related to quality expenditures; made clear allowable quality expenditures by early learning coalitions to support quality improvement activities; clarified fraud referral processes; and revised eligibility to allow school-age care for TANF families, or children at risk of abuse and neglect. School age care for children from low-income families is still a non-allowable expenditure under this bill, as is serving children with disabilities that do not qualify under the income eligibility requirements. HB 5103 passed favorably by the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday filed by Rep. Marti Coley (R-Marianna) by an overwhelming margin of 23-0.
HB 7055 by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Ft. Walton Beach) has been filed, but not heard. It amends current statute and limits the Office of Early Learning’s (OEL) rulemaking authority over school readiness programs and early learning coalitions, repeals OEL’s rulemaking authority over the prevailing market rate schedule, and repeals OEL’s rulemaking authority related to the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (TEACH) scholarship program.
Relating to Grading Parents
A measure that would call for schools to grade how well parents are doing in advancing their child’s education was heard by the House Rulemaking and Regulation Committee on Friday. CS/HB 1191 filed by Rep. Michael Bileca (R-Miami) is proving to be controversial and authorizes parents of students assigned to certain underperforming public schools to submit petitions to school districts requesting implementation of school turnaround options selected by parents; and requires school districts, upon request, to provide parents with performance evaluations for classroom teachers assigned to their child. On the Senate side, CS/SB 1718 has been filed by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Ft. Myers).
Relating to Insurance Code Exclusions
The House Health and Human Services Quality committee considered HSQS3 which would have removed from the insurance code a list of conditions for which companies were mandated to offer coverage. The committee removed from coverage prescription food for newborns, autism, cleft palate and cleft lip and substance abuse and mental health. This bill did pass after these amendments were made, but is still a bad bill that removes coverage for bone marrow transplants.
Florida Healthy Start
The Florida Association of Healthy Start Coalitions (FAHSC) learned last week that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMMS) was recommending that the portion of the Federal Medicaid 1915B Waiver providing coverage for infants would not be renewed. This waiver funds a portion of Healthy Start services, as well as MomCare services. The FAHSC filed an appeal. On Wednesday, CMMS announced that the waiver would be fully funded through January 31, 2014. So far, Healthy Start is recommended for level funding in the House’s budget.
TAKE ACTION: Please contact members of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee and ask them to restore last year’s Healthy Start cut of $5.4 million as recommended by the Governor.
Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Visiting Grant
The Florida House has moved to eliminate the $3.4 million in federal grant money for child abuse prevention and maternal care home visiting that advocates fought hard for last year. A budget proposal put forward by the chair of the House’s Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee Chair, Rep. Matt Hudson (R-Naples), called for elimination of the grant and the services.
The state was awarded $3.4 million from the federal government – through the Affordable Care Act – to give to groups that provide home visiting programs. Such programs have shown to provide effective child abuse and neglect prevention, as well as pregnancy prevention for teens. The Florida Legislature originally declined the grant last year because the state is waging a legal battle over the very law that allocated the funds.
State policy-makers eventually agreed to accept the funds once they were told that denying them would disqualify the state from applying for millions in federal education dollars through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge program, ultimately not awarded to Florida.
State Rep. Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach) said that the grant represents an “investment in our future.” He believes the funding for these programs is in jeopardy, again, because of the “philosophical opposition to the Affordable Care Act” in the Legislature.
Department of Health (DOH) Reorganization
A proposed committee substitute (PCS) filed on Thursday by Rep. Hudson (R-Naples) to HB 1263 calls for sweeping changes to the Department of Health (DOH) and local health departments. Among other things, the amendment calls for a massive shift of public health responsibility to county health units through per capita block grant funding, the privatization of Children’s Medical Services (CMS), places local health departments in charge of every case of child protection, imposes a limitation of data collection to only communicable diseases, and repeals DOH authority over life style health issues such as obesity and smoking.
This bill will be heard in the House Health and Human Services Quality Subcommittee on Monday, February 6 at 3:30 p.m.
TAKE ACTION: Please ask members of the Health and Human Services Quality Subcommittee to carefully consider what these changes in critical functions and funding may mean to effective public health. Additionally, please share your concerns with the House bill with Senator Garcia, a strong supporter of public health and sponsor of the Senate companion, SB 1824. Currently, SB 1824 does not contain this revised language.
This week, foster care alumni from across the state came together as a part of Florida Youth Shine to urge lawmakers to reject a proposal that would reduce eligibility in the Road to Independence program from age 23 to 21 connected to SB 434 by Sen. Nan Rich (D-Weston). They testified before both substantive and appropriations committees and met with scores of members. The House companion bill, HB 417 by Rep. Rich Glorioso (R-Plant City) faces several further committee stops and has yet to be heard in the first (Health and Human Services Access Subcommittee).
Exploitation of Children
On Tuesday, HB 099 filed by Reps. Erik Fresen (R-Miami) and Jeanette Nunez (R-Miami) passed favorably by the Civil Justice Subcommittee by a margin of 14-0 and will now appear in the Health and Human Services Committee. This bill relates to the sexual exploitation of children and cites the “Florida Safe Harbor Act.” It requires a child who has been or is alleged to have been sexually exploited to be placed in a facility that offers treatment; provides for increased civil penalties for soliciting another to commit prostitution or related acts; provides for disposition of proceeds; and allows victim compensation for sexually exploited children.
Also on Tuesday, SB 1816 by Sen. Lizbeth Benaquisto (R-Ft. Myers) passed the Criminal Justice Committee unanimously and is now in its last committee of reference, the Budget Committee. Among other things, the bill requires specified educational institutions and their law enforcement agencies to report known or suspected child abuse, abandonment, or neglect in certain circumstances; revises the definition of the terms “forced labor or services” and “human trafficking;” prohibits knowingly or in reckless disregard of the facts engaging in certain acts relating to human trafficking; provides additional duties for the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission concerning instruction in human trafficking; and requires the Department of Children and Family Services to develop guidelines for serving children who have been the victims of human trafficking, etc.
On Monday, HB 583 by Rep. Jose Oliva (R-Miami) passed favorably by the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee by a margin of 13-0 and will next appear in the Judiciary Committee. This bill relates to the murder of a child 17 years of age or younger and provides for the reclassification of specified murder offenses if committed upon a child of this age and prohibits the court from suspending, deferring or withholding adjudication of guilt or imposition of sentence.
Juvenile Justice Bills
On Tuesday, HB 005 by Rep. Michael Weinstein (R-Orange Park) and co-sponsor Rep. Ari Porth (D-Coral Springs) related to parole of juvenile offenders passed favorably by the Criminal Justice Subcommittee by a close margin of 6-5. This bill designated as the “Graham Compliance Act;” provides that juvenile offenders who are younger than 18 at the time of commission of nonhomicide offense and sentenced to life imprisonment are eligible for parole if the offender has been incarcerated for a minimum period, and establishes criteria to determine the offenders maturity and reform. A similar bill is in the Senate filed by Sen. Steve Oelrich (R-Gainesville), SB 212 which has been referred to Criminal Justice; Children, Families, and Elder Affairs; and Budget.
Also on Tuesday, HB 497 related to juvenile expunction by Rep. Ari Porth (D-Coral Springs) passed favorably by the Criminal Justice Subcommittee by a margin of 14-0. This bill allows minors who have certain felony arrests to have the Florida Department of Law Enforcement expunge their nonjudicial record upon the successful completion of a pre-arrest and post-arrest diversion program. In the Senate,SB 940 by Sen. Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville) has been referred to the Criminal Justice, and Budget Committees.
Relating to Background Screening
On Tuesday, CS/SB 320 filed by Sen. Ronda Storms (R-Brandon) was passed favorably by the Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee by a 6-0 margin and will next appear in the Budget Committee. The bill provides that mental health personnel working in a facility licensed under ch. 395, F.S., who work on an intermittent basis for less than 15 hours per week of direct, face-to-face contact with patients, are exempt from the fingerprinting and screening requirements under certain conditions; requires background screening and rescreening of certain persons having contact with vulnerable persons; and prohibits the employee from having direct contact with vulnerable persons until the screening process is complete.