Today's Top Story
by REBECCA R. RUIZ and STEVE LOHR | NY Times
WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility, a milestone in regulating high-speed Internet service into American homes.
The new rules, approved 3 to 2 along party lines, are intended to ensure that no content is blocked and that the Internet is not divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for Internet and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else. Those...
by Steve Bousquet | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — In touting his plan for record school spending, Gov. Rick Scott is ignoring a fact that concerns some of his fellow Republicans: He wants property taxpayers to pay more.
Scott's $77 billion budget, awaiting review by the Legislature, includes $842 million more for public schools, raising per pupil spending to its highest level.
More than half of the increase would come from higher property taxes paid by homeowners and business owners as a result of growth in property values.
That's definitely a tax increase, a leading Republican legislator says.
"It is a tax increase if you're a property taxpayer who gets a tax bill that will go up next year compared to this year. Property taxpayers will look at that and say 'That's a tax increase,'" says Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, an architect of the next education budget as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.
Gaetz said that as local property taxes account for a growing share of school district budgets, school boards deserve more autonomy.
"He who has the gold sets the rules," Gaetz said. "In this case , the state is contributing less and less of the taxpayers' gold, and local school districts are contributing more and more."
Gaetz, a Scott ally, is expected to support a budget that requires higher property tax collections. A former superintendent and school board member in Okaloosa County, he said the tax-hike question is not complicated for taxpayers: "If the check he has to write goes up, then he thinks his taxes go up," he said.
Scott's education budget, a starting point for two months of negotiations with lawmakers, includes $392 million more in property taxes collected statewide as the counties' share of school spending, known as required local effort, for a total of $7.6 billion.
The state-mandated property tax rate for schools would remain the same under Scott's proposal — about $5 for every $1,000 of taxable value — but the growth in property values would require taxpayers to pay more.
"Because property values are starting to increase, the required local effort actually generates considerably more dollars," said Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning, a Republican. "Are people paying more taxes? Yes."
Scott took exception to calling his proposed increase in property tax collections a tax hike.
"Sen. Gaetz is right that we always need to find ways to lower taxes and the governor has said he wants to see legislation to prevent local governments from raising property taxes when home values are not rising," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said. "The Florida economy is booming –home values are up and state revenues are up. The last five budgets adopted by the legislature followed the exact same … funding policy used in this budget. This means we can cut taxes and invest more in education."
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by Carol Gentry | Health News Florida
Florida business groups, insurers, and hospitals are pushing state officials to accept billions of dollars in federal funds to cover the low-income uninsured.
But when the 2015 legislative session opens next Tuesday, this impressive coalition will run into Rep. Matt Hudson, a Naples Republican who chairs the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.
He has opposed Medicaid expansion -- a key part of the Affordable Care Act -- ever since the Supreme Court ruled it optional for states. Now, he said, he also rejects the private-sector plan "A Healthy Florida Works," endorsed by the Chambers of Commerce and other conservative groups.
"I still believe that Medicaid Expansion is wrong for Florida," Hudson said in a recent phone interview.
Patient advocates have been hoping that Hudson and other opponents of expansion would accept it in some form if the federal government allowed Florida to impose work requirements and other rules on the newly-insured.
No such offer has been publicly made, but rumors have been circulating as negotiations between state and federal health officials continue over a different Medicaid funding issue: continuation of the Low Income Pool for hospitals and clinics that treat the poor. (See "Billions at Stake as State, Feds Negotiate Medicaid Funding.")
Asked whether work rules for beneficiaries would change his opposition to expansion, Hudson said no. "I don’t believe for one moment that this is a good plan for Florida and I would certainly not change my opinion that way," he said.
Hudson cited two reasons for his stance, starting with medical resources. The state already faces a shortage of physicians without adding hundreds of thousands more patients to the mix, he said. Eight counties have no hospital, he said, and 17 counties lack a pediatrician.
As for the federal funding for expansion, estimated at $50 billion over a decade, Hudson doesn’t believe it will last. Congress will be unable to keep the funds flowing because of strain in the federal budget, he says.
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by Caitlin Johnston | tampa bay times
TAMPA — Ride-share companies Uber and Lyft could operate legally in Florida if legislation filed Wednesday by Sen. Jeff Brandes passes this session, bringing an end to nearly a year of feuding with regulators in Tampa, Orlando and Miami.
Uber and Lyft have quarreled with regulators over whether they meet requirements for insurance, background checks and other safety issues. The Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission ordered a cease and desist and sought a court injunction against the two companies. Authorities in Miami-Dade impounded vehicles belonging to Lyft drivers, and Orlando passed regulation calling for a vehicle registration fee and a higher minimum fare for Uber and Lyft.
The ride-share companies, which use smartphone apps to connect riders with drivers who drive their own cars, started operating in Tampa in April. Almost immediately, PTC inspectors began issuing tickets, calling the services illegal.
Brandes' bill would create the first statewide requirements for the companies and would likely supersede any regulations in place on a local level.
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by Erin Kourkounis | Tampa Tribune
TAMPA — Next school year, student test scores may account for just a third of teacher evaluations in Florida rather than 40 percent or 50 percent as they do today.
The change would be contained in a student testing measure, Senate Bill 616, filed by K-12 education committee chairman Sen. John Legg earlier this month.
It’s not there now, but Legg told The Tampa Tribune editorial board Wednesday he plans to add language in the bill as early as Friday to bring the component down to 33 percent.
“There is going to be more specificity,” said Legg, a Lutz Republican. “A minimum of one-third will be student data.”
The decision to lower the testing component followed a three-hour public workshop and conversations with officials from the state’s teachers union, who said student data should make up only one-third of teacher evaluations.
Currently, each of the state’s 67 school districts — with the exception of Hillsborough County — is required to base half a teacher’s evaluation on student test scores. In Hillsborough, test scores make up 40 percent of an evaluation under the district’s Empowering Effective Teachers program.
The balance of a teacher’s evaluations comes from principal and peer observations.
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by Jeff John Roberts | GigaOM
The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday morning voted to push aside laws in two states that restrict municipalities from building out their local high speed broadband networks.
In a 3-2 vote, the FCC granted petitions from Chattanooga, North Carolina and Wilson, North Carolina that asked the agency to invoke its powers under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act to “remove barriers” to infrastructure access.
The upshot is that the FCC has invoked federal power to pre-empt state laws that, according to advocates for the municipalities, were passed at the behest of big telecom companies.
While Thursday’s vote applies only to Tennessee or North Carolina, it will provide legal ammunition for towns in more than twenty other states that confront laws banning or restricting municipal-run broadband services.
The Democratic Commissioners who voted in favor of pre-emption used their platform at the hearing to call attention to towns across the country that lack basic broadband access because private companies won’t build it.
Commissioner Marsha Clyburn observed that millions of Americans are “trapped in digital darkness,” and can’t access high-speed internet service that would let them access telework and school services, especially during snow days.
The two Republican Commissioners questioned the legal authority of the FCC, under Section 706, to override the state laws, and raised concern about its effect on the private market.
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by Steve Bousquet | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau
At the height of the outcry over the forced ouster of an FDLE commissioner by Gov. Rick Scott's office, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam was poised to go public with a strongly-worded denunciation of the Gerald Bailey fiasco, including a reference to "key actions" made in secret that deny Floridians the constitutional right of access.
The words, under Putnam's byline, are in the form of a draft opinion piece for newspaper editorial pages that was never submitted.
Putnam's deputy chief of staff, Amanda Bevis, drafted the op-ed on Jan. 21. She said it was not sent because Putnam was giving interviews to Capitol reporters and making similar points that third week in January. "Because of the volume of media coverage around the issue, we decided not to do an op-ed," Bevis said.
The tone of the unpublished piece makes points similar to the court pleadings by Florida media outlets that accuse Scott and Cabinet members of violating the Sunshine Law by quietly sacking Bailey with no public discussion or vote.
"The members of the Cabinet are required to meet on a regular basis to consider items that are required by statute to come before the Cabinet," Putnam's piece reads. "The recent, sudden transition in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, however, represents a breakdown in the Cabinet process. When key decisions are made without the concurrence of all Cabinet members and outside of Cabinet meetings, we are robbing our constituents of their right to witness these deliberations. Moreover, such activities are not reflective of the governing body that was established in Florida's Constitution and do not represent the open process and shared responsibilities that were intended to be carried out by this governing body."
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by Sascha Cordner | WFSU
George Zimmerman will not face federal civil rights charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and some state legislators, like Sen. Dwight Bullard (D-Miami), say they're not too happy about Tuesday’s Justice Department’s announcement.
“I’m upset there are no federal charges,” said Bullard. “I think there are a lot of folks that are upset that there are no federal charges being brought against Mr. Zimmerman.”
George Zimmerman was first acquitted of second degree murder in 2013, after saying he shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense during a confrontation in Sanford—sparking many nationwide protests on behalf of the unarmed black teen who died.
“Part of the reason why those charges aren’t there is they kind of just see a destructive path of behavior that they feel will ultimately lead to him being incarcerated somewhere,” added Bullard. “And, my simple statement is if not, you guys, who’s going to do it? And, I’d much rather see justice served now, as opposed to waiting on that one instance where he finally ends up doing some credible time in a correctional institution for some of the ludicrous behavior that he’s been involved in.”
Zimmerman’s acquittal also sparked conversations surrounding Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. That’s why Bullard says he recently filed a bill making changes to the law—similar to bills he's filed in the past.
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by Martha Musgrove | Sun Sentinel
Insurance is not likely to be high on the Legislature's agenda when it convenes on March 3, but that could change for two reasons: Gov. Rick Scott has picked a fight with his Cabinet colleagues in an attempt to replace Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty. And national flood insurance premiums are scheduled to rise by 15 percent to 18 percent on April 1.
The first has the political intrigue, deceit and backstory that keeps Florida politics entertaining. The governor bullies the head of the Cabinet-controlled Department of Law Enforcement into resigning. The truth comes out, but Scott gets little or no push-back from the Cabinet — Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam.
So the governor resets his sights on replacing McCarty and two other Cabinet appointees, the banking commissioner and revenue director. A boardroom coup — at least for now.
The second reason is more complicated — another one of those punches to the wallet that keeps Floridians seething over the cost and turmoil of securing homeowner and flood insurance.
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by News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Blaming a budget shortfall, the Florida Department of Health has laid off most of the administrators at the Early Steps program, which serves babies and toddlers with developmental disabilities and delays.
The department said the cuts won't affect services to families. But critics of the move say it will leave the program — which gets the majority of its funding from the federal government — unable to meet requirements that keep the money flowing.
The workers received letters of termination Thursday, advising that their last day would be March 2.
Department officials wouldn't confirm the number of people in the Early Steps central office who were laid off. But Arnetta Givens, one of those leaving, said 13 Early Steps employees got letters of termination. Several other positions, Givens said, were already vacant.
That leaves five people to support the 15 local Early Steps offices, which work with tens of thousands of children and their families across the state.
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by Steven Lemongello | Orlando Sentinel
A "ticking time bomb" awaits many Florida cities and counties that are not providing enough money to fund health benefits for retirees, according to a new study that shows Orlando to have one of the highest liabilities in the state.
In response, Orlando officials said Tuesday that they have taken measures to shore up their health-retirement assets and feel confident that there should be no future crisis here.
Retiree health-benefit liabilities are a "hidden" issue facing local governments, according to the study released Tuesday by the LeRoy Collins Institute, a government think tank. They are almost as large as pension liabilities but mostly unfunded, leaving it to future taxpayers to pay the costs of its obligations.
The study concludes that most local governments should increase their contributions by 2 percent to 10 percent of their payrolls in order to avoid problems down the road, instead of the current "pay-as-you-go" approach.
"These costs will not only likely be significantly higher, but also quite possibly unsustainable in the future," the institute stated.
The total size of unfunded local retiree health-benefit liabilities in Florida in 2011 was almost $8.4 billion, the study states.
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by Lottie watts | WUSF
This week on Florida Matters, we are taking a look at some of the issues lawmakers are expected to take up during the upcoming 60-day session.
We will preview the top legislative priorities for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, including a call to fund two new nursing homes for veterans; testing in Florida public schools; the real chances for expanding how telemedicine is practiced in the state; the push to license music therapists; the billions of dollars at stake for health care for the poor; and a bill to legalize marijuana for medical use in Florida.
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