The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Weatherford: BOG should have a say in FAMU-FSU engineering split

House Speaker Will Weatherford said discussion about a Senate proposal to divide the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering into separate programs should involve the state Board of Governors. The House has yet to agree to include money in the final budget for the split, and the decision may ultimately rest with Weatherford himself.

"I would say that both (Florida State University) and (Florida A&M University) have very good points to be made," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said. "I would also say that the Board of Governors has  a role to play in this conversation. I don’t think the Florida House is in a rush to do anything."

Weatherford's brother played football at FSU and his father-in-law is chairman of the school's Board of Trustees. But the House speaker has not indicated whether he will ultimately side with FSU supporters in granting the request from powerful Sen. John Thrasher to give FSU $13 million to begin establishing its own engineering program separate from FAMU.

Weatherford noted the oversight role of the state Board of Governors and said its wishes should be considered as budget talks continue. …

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'Trauma drama' bill could get bogged down in final days of session

From Friday's paper:

A plan to shield three disputed trauma centers from legal action — while also placing limits on trauma center access fees — faces an uncertain future as the legislative session winds down.

The so-called "trauma drama" fix is weighed down with language from at least 10 other proposals, turning into an omnibus bill that may be too unwieldy to gain Senate approval.

House Bill 7113 is expected to be approved today in the House, but the Senate is already expressing reservations.

"Any time you have a piece of legislation that big, it's usually problematic," said Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, the health care budget chief.

Read more here.

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The medium, and the market, is the message for Rick Scott

The self-described “jobs” governor wants the credit for the good economy and he wants Crist to bear the blame for the bad times. It’s bread-and-butter messaging for Scott (fact check to follow.

Trailing in the polls, Scott has already run two negative ads that bash Crist over Obamacare. Scott has released three positive spots, one of which was in Spanish.

The TV ads’ contents aren’t the only message.

The size of the spend tells us something: more than $5 million since March 12 and at least $6.5 million by May 15. That’s more than any other incumbent governor at this point. It's probably about as much or more than each Cabinet officer spent statewide, on average, on TV. And it’s still April.

The location of the spend also sends a message: the I-4 corridor is of crucial importance to Scott. It’s the swing-area of the swing state.

Exactly 50 percent of the ad buy is reserved in Tampa Bay and the Orlando area.

Tampa Bay has the most Scott money reserved: 29 percent, or $1.9 million. Tampa Bay is Crist country.

Miami-Fort Lauderdale, the state’s most-expensive media market, accounts for 10 percent of the ad buy. …

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Rasmussen poll: Crist 45%, Scott 39%

But the polls, except for two outliers, remain stubbornly similar (last post on last batch of polls is here). 

And the latest Rasmussen Reports poll is no different. It shows Crist getting 45% of the likely vote and Scott getting 39%. Libertarian Adrian Wyllie wasn't polled (instead, "some other candidate" was). **UPDATE: Of course, a News Service of Florida poll shows a tie **

The poll's results are surprising for two reasons: 

1) Scott has spent more than $5 million on TV ads since March 12 (And he has reserved more ad time through mid-May, which would total $6.5 million in two months). That should have moved the needle more in Scott's direction.

2) This is Rasmussen, whose results tend to lean more conservative than some other polls. In part, that's the result of technology. Rasmussen uses so-called robo-polling technology that relies on landline voters, who tend to be older and whiter and therefore more Republican or conservative than cell-phone owning voters who tend to be younger and more minority and therefore more Democratic or liberal. …

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Poll: Charlie Crist 42%, Rick Scott 42%

From the News Service of Florida:

A new poll finds Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic challenger Charlie Crist in a dead heat and, with more than 10 percent of voters undecided, sets the stage for an already-brutal campaign expected to get uglier over the next seven months. …

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Legislators want to shed Citizens policies by steering to unregulated carriers

In their zeal to shed policies in the state-run Citizens Property Insurance, the Florida Senate is poised to approve a bill that gives homeowners a low-cost, but unregulated, insurance alternative.

Opponents say the new policy -- to allow Citizens customers to select a surplus lines carrier when their policy is up for renewal -- is a wolf in sheep's clothing that could mislead homeowners into thinking they are getting the same insurance for less. Proponents say the plan is a free-market alternative that is a simple case of buyer beware.

"This is something that is provided as an option to a consumer,’’ said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altemonte Springs. "Should we as a legislature prohibit them after having the opportunity?’’

Under the bill, SB 1672, unregulated insurance sold by surplus lines carriers would be included in the list of options homeowners can choose from in the state-run clearinghouse when their policy is up for renewal. These companies would have to offer the same coverage Citizens offers and rates must be 15 percent and include a disclaimer that surplus lines are not regulated, but there is no assurance the rates won’t change.

"This is a classic bait and switch,’’ said Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, who is opposing a similar bill, HB 1109, awaiting a vote in the House. "People decide with their wallets and if they are given a choice between an admitted carrier (traditional insurance) and surplus lines, many people are not going to read their policies and realize they’re not apples and oranges."

Unlike traditional insurance companies, surplus lines were created as insurers of last resort for specialty risks that couldn’t obtain coverage in traditional insurance markets. …

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Miami judge blasts DCF for keeping children in home where abused child died

A Miami judge lashed out at child welfare administrators this week after they asked her to leave three small children in a South-Dade home in which their 3-year-old cousin had just died — his body marked by bruises, welts and a human bite mark.

Gerardo Perez arrived unresponsive at Homestead Hospital over the weekend with bruises to his elbow, back and legs, and telltale bite marks on his upper back. He also had a mouth full of severely rotten teeth. On Monday, he was dead.

Child welfare authorities surveyed the toddler’s injuries and considered removing his first cousins from the home Gerardo shared with them, saying nothing less could “keep the children safe” as police tried to determine who hurt the boy.

But later, the Department of Children & Families changed course: The agency asked a Miami-Dade judge to leave the three youngsters — ages 3, 2 and 1 — with their father, Gerardo’s uncle, on his written pledge to keep their mother and Gerardo’s mother, considered abuse suspects by police, out of the house. …

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Senate passes Pop-Tart bill with practically no debate

The 'Pop-Tart' gun bill is headed to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott. 

Florida senators approved the NRA-supported proposal in a 32-6 vote Thursday.

There was virtually no debate, besides Sen. Jack Latvala asking what exactly HB 7029 would do.

The Senate sponsor, Sen. Greg Evers, had a simple reply: It would prevent situations "where you chew a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and you are expelled" from school.

The situation actually happened in Maryland. It inspired the bill in Florida.

More broadly, the proposal would prevent schools from disciplining students who play with simulated weapons. It passed in the House by a 98-17 vote last month.

The Senate discussed the proposal some on Wednesday.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, asked how many incidents had been reported in Florida.

Evers said it had happened in his North Florida district within the last three months.

"Two kids were sitting down reading a book and there was a picture of a Wild Wild West show and one person has a gun," he said. "One student tells another student that he's got a cap gun at home that's the same as the one in the picture. The teacher sent him to the principal and he was expelled." …

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Florida House bill addresses Cuban baseball players

State representatives on Thursday tweaked a bill that would allow professional sports franchises to compete for $12 million in annual sales tax subsidies for facilities projects.

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, added language that would prohibit professional baseball teams from winning the money -- unless Major League Baseball changes its rules about Cuban baseball players.

Under the current MLB rules, players from Cuba must establish residency in another country in order to become free agents. Cuban players who come directly to the United States go into the amateur draft.

The proposal comes on the heels of recent media reports detailing outfielder Yasiel Puig's dangerous journey from Cuba to California. Puig, who now plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers and was the runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year in 2013, was held hostage by smugglers in Mexico.

Gaetz said the current restrictions "drive exceptional Cuban athletes into the arms of human traffickers."

Said Diaz: "We're not going to give away our taxpayer dollars until this ill is corrected." …

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Weatherford and Gaetz in another standoff, this time over pet projects

It’s not just subsidized higher education for undocumented students that is pitting Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford against Senate President Don Gaetz.

It’s also two separate line items buried deep in the dueling higher education budget proposals from the two chambers.

The Senate is proposing to spend $10 million for the University of West Florida’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement. Gaetz, R-Niceville, is requesting the money for the Pensacola-based university, which happens to be in his district.

“This is for the Industry Recruitment, Retention & Expansion Fund (IRREF) Grant Program, which is administered by the University of West Florida,” said Katie Betta, Gaetz’s spokeswoman, in an email. “Senator Gaetz was one of the authors (of the law), of which the Oil Spill Recovery Act was an important component. The Oil Spill Recovery Act allots $10 million per year for three years to eight Northwest Florida Counties for the purposes of research and development, commercialization of research, economic diversification and job creation.” …

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Performance funding for state universities among unresolved budget issues

UPDATE: A spokesman for House Speaker Will Weatherford said the House proposal for performance funding found in HB 5105 is effectively dead after failing to pass its final committee. The House will not waive rules to resurrect the proposal, even though it started out on solid ground as a bill introduced by the Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee.

Instead, the House inserted language in its version of the budget that is very similar to the Senate proposal and embraces the Board of Governors' performance funding criteria.

As it stands, the main disagreement between the two chambers is how much the lowest-performance schools would lose. The House would only require a 1 percent cut in base formula. The Senate wants a 3.7 percent reduction.

The two chambers agree to put $200 million into performance funding, including $100 million in new funding that would be divided by the top-performing schools. There is also an additional $5 million each for the two pre-eminent institutions: Florida State University and University of Florida. …

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Senate supports landmark bid for law license by non-citizen

A closely-divided Florida Senate Thursday championed the unprecedented case of Jose Godinez-Samperio of Largo, a law school grad who has been denied a law license because he's not a citizen. Hours after senators rejected the idea on a 19-18 vote, they clearly approved it on a voice vote, but a final vote was delayed.

Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, changed his vote from no to yes and said in an interview he was distracted and voted the wrong way by mistake. "I think the kid deserves it. I think he's worked hard," Thrasher said. "I don't think we ought to punish kids who were brought here by their parents."

That's the same argument proponents are using to give discounted in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrant students living in Florida. But opponents said helping Godinez-Samperio was a serious mistake.

Likening Godinez-Samperio to a "lawbreaker," Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, asked: "Does being an American matter any more? ... We are making an illegal citizen an officer of the court."

"If they're here illegally, they need to get in line and do it the right way," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. …

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Benacquisto says she's 'resuming' state Senate re-election campaign

State Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto said today she is "resuming" her re-election bid, just two days after losing the Congressional District 19 race.

"Serving SWFL is an honor & I look forward to resuming re-election effort after work in Tally ends," she wrote on Twitter.

The congressional primary date (set by Gov. Rick Scott) was advantageous to her because a loss would still allow her to qualify for the Senate. Benacquisto likely raised her name ID as well. She drew complaints earlier this year for running TV ads that did not specify which office she was seeking.

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Teachers' union president calls for policy changes after testing hiccup

Days after a computer glitch forced more than two dozen school districts to suspend online testing, Florida Education Association President Andy Ford asked elected officials to slow down the transition to new accountability measures.

"This may be a vendor fiasco, but the real failure is the high-stakes policy attached to this known problem," Ford wrote in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford on Thursday.

Ford noted that the statewide teachers' union -- along with the school boards association, superintendents group and PTA -– had called for a pause as the state deploys new education standards, assessments and accountability systems.

"Lawmakers are discussing modest revisions to Florida’s rupturing accountability system," Ford wrote. "But their legislative fix leaves some elements untouched."

Ford called on the elected officials to provide school systems with the necessary technology. He also demanded the state perform a rigorous independent review of its new assessments, and make a pencil-and-paper option available to all students.

What's more, Ford said, the state should hold off on its new merit-pay system for teachers. …

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New Rick Scott ad says Crist 'ran away' from job

Rick Scott is out with his sixth TV ad, this one calling Charlie Crist "slick" and saying he "ran away" from the job he now wants back. It continues Scott's assault, but to what effect? As Marc Caputo notes today, the $6.5 million and counting hasn't moved the needle for Scott.

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