Saturday, September 22, 2018

Florida House and Senate posture for conflict over omnibus education bill

It's still early in the session, but the Florida House and Senate already inched closer to conflict as both chambers drew a line in the sand on the process surrounding a mega-bill that would fundamentally alter many aspects of Florida's education.

House Bill 7055, at nearly 200-pages, wraps together several bills and skates across a myriad of issues from scholarships to bullying to testing to school governance to teachers' unions. It also, in a single line, makes the state's per-student funding of public schools, or $21.1 billion, "contingent upon PCS for HB 7055 or similar legislation becoming law."

Until now, Senate Republicans had remained mute in response to the shouts from Democrats that the bill's massive volume precludes transparency and even that the budget tie-in could be unconstitutional.

But on Wednesday, the Republican chair of the committee that controls the purse strings in the Senate said the House's gamesmanship was not right — a sign of the fight to come, and the political posturing of both chambers ahead of the budget negotiating process.

"When you do it that way you don't send it through the normal process of the committees and have the debate, the testimony you receive that you do in the committee process," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. "You lose the ability to amend because it's an up or down vote on what is in front of the Senator."

Bradley then said he is a "school choice guy" who generally supports the policy in the bill, but objects to the House's hardball with the budget.
"You've made the stakes (about) are we going to get to go home on time and have a budget completed, rather than if this is a good idea or not for the people of the state of Florida?" he said.

Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, has said the pieces of HB 7055 have been heard separately in committees and that the budget measure was appropriate because portions of the bill would significantly change the formula for the way per-student funding is calculated, meaning the two are inextricably linked.

"This is something that will go into conference negotiations so that's something that can be talked about," he said in response to Bradley's comments. "I think it's early to be having those conversations."

After the chambers pass their budgets and related education measures, the two chambers will "conference" to negotiate the differences.

The House will vote on its budget Thursday.

In less surprising news from the long House floor session, the Democrats were bulldozed over in their policy objections to HB 7055, for which they had proposed more than 30 amendments. Each was painstakingly debated and voted down, including one by Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, that would have removed the budget tie-in which he called a "dangerous precedent."

Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the ranking Democratic member on the House Education Committee who usually is amicable to working with Republicans, said it would be better if the Legislature went back to the drawing board.

"I've never said this in my six years in office: I hope the whole thing blows up," he said. "Pass the budget now, let it fail and then come back here and do it the right way."

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