Thursday, September 20, 2018

Florida Senate advances massive education bill with last-minute changes

The Florida Senate advanced HB 7055 on Friday, but it wasn't the same education package that had passed through a committee earlier in the week.

A major amendment filed the evening before it went to the floor for a vote was the result of negotiations with House members, said sponsor Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. Those negotiations were not public.

Among the new changes, the amendment:

  • Added a new sales tax funding source for the Gardiner Scholarship, a voucher for disabled students to attend private schools
  • Removed proposed accountability measures to prevent unethical profits from charter school construction
  • Removed a pitch to make a financial literacy course a high school graduation requirement
  • Increased the amount of money a person can donate to the new Hope Scholarship vouchers for bullied students, from $20 to $105, matching the House’s version.

Passidomo spoke at length about how the Senate had resisted the attempts of the House to fast-track the bill by attaching it to the budget, and said the Senate had chosen the transparent path.

"Everything in this bill everyone has had on opportunity to look at," she said. "Our president wanted to make sure that the bill went through Senate committees to allow time for review, edits, testimony and discussion about issues important to all of us."

The bill now allows tenants of commercial property to direct the sales tax of their rent away from the state's general fund and into the account for the Gardiner Scholarship, up to $57.5 million. The Gardiner Scholarship is a publicly funded voucher for students with mental or physical disabilities to be able to attend private schools.

Democrats unsuccessfully tried to remove a highly controversial piece of HB 7055 which requires teachers' unions to have 50 percent of all people eligible to be in the union be dues-paying members. It does not apply to unions of other professions. Teachers' unions are a core constituency for the Democratic Party.

Teachers' unions have decried the rule as union-busting and unfair, especially in the wake of the Parkland shooting during which three teachers were killed protecting students.

Then in a dramatically tense moment on the floor, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, stood defiant of his party as he proposed an amendment to relax the threshold to 40 percent, calling the 50 percent margin "mean-spirited" and "punitive." Twice the Senate President, Joe Negron, R-Stuart, asked him to finish speaking on his amendment but Lee continued anyway.

"I know how easy it is to come up here and go along and get along," he said. "I also didn't come to Tallahassee to be told what to do. … There isn't a budget amendment or a bill I care about more than doing the right thing."

That amendment failed in a 19-19 tie, with three Republicans — Sen. Dana Young of Tampa, Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah and Sen. Greg Steube of Sarasota — voting with Lee and the Democrats.

HB 7055 still needs to be formally passed by the Senate, which it is expected to do in the coming days. The bill will then go back to the House for final approval before it is sent to the governor.

At the same time the Senate spent hours in debate on this bill, the House moved forward HB 1, a separate bill with the same bullying voucher program in 7055. Several pieces of the package bill have been similarly peeled off in the House, an indication that it could be prepping for the measures to still go into effect in case HB 7055 doesn't pass into law.

The House also advanced a major tax package on Friday that included a sales tax funding source up to $154 million for multiple types of school vouchers.

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