Florida House member finally discloses her nonprofit benefits from her vote

Published Nov. 30, 2013

In the conservative Florida Legislature, Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, has an undisputed reputation for fiscal austerity.

None other than Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by billionaire libertarian brothers David and Charles Koch, gave O'Toole an A plus rating in June, establishing her as the gold standard for a group that says it prizes "free markets over cronyism."

Yet even this group questions O'Toole's dual roles as chief operating officer of a nonprofit and vice chairwoman of the House education appropriations committee that approved $6 million for the same Miami nonprofit in this year's budget.

Take Stock in Children was awarded an additional $9.1 million from the state's $200 million mortgage settlement. O'Toole, a former IBM executive with a thick Boston accent, voted on both matters.

In neither case did she disclose she's paid $50,000 a year by the group.

"It seems the proper thing to do in this case would have been to identify that you have this role with this group," said Slade O'Brien, the Florida director for Americans for Prosperity. "Or recuse yourself from the vote."

Getting an explanation from O'Toole, 68, isn't easy.

On June 24, O'Toole was first contacted by the Times/Herald. Three weeks later she said she would respond to written questions, but after she was sent several on July 9, she didn't respond to them until Monday.

She replied that her salary is "not paid for out of funds provided by the State of Florida to Take Stock in Children, but out of private dollars that are raised by that organization to assist with management and oversight."

Further, she downplayed her role as vice chairwoman of the education appropriations committee. "My role was the same as all other members of the subcommittee," O'Toole wrote in an email. "Worksheets were presented, line items were vetted and evaluated, and the subcommittee submitted recommendations to the appropriations chair."

From the very beginning of the budget process earlier this year, O'Toole's committee was proposing to spend $6 million on Take Stock in Children. Throughout, O'Toole didn't publicly disclose that she was getting paid $50,000 by the group.

"I really didn't know her relationship with Take Stock in Children," said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who was chairman of the Senate's education appropriations committee. "I don't think it would have changed my support for it, but, yeah, I'd like to know as much as I can."

O'Toole did file a written disclosure to Bob Ward, the clerk of the Florida House, in a letter dated Aug. 29. More than two months after she was first contacted by the Times/Herald, O'Toole disclosed she voted for the appropriations for Take Stock in Children.

Pilot plan for classes

Two Miami-Dade Republican lawmakers have filed legislation that would encourage Florida school districts to try gender-specific classrooms.

The proposal, by state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah and Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, would designate state funding to help five school systems pilot the idea at an elementary school.

The initiative would cost no more than $1 million, Diaz said.

"There is a school of thought that boys develop slower and girls are always ahead in elementary school," Diaz said. "At the same time, there is also research that shows that girls can be intimidated in some classes and not speak up as much."

If HB 313 becomes law, parents would have the ability to opt in (or opt out) of the gender-specific schools. The students would all come together for lunch, and classes such as art, music and foreign language.

Diaz envisions the pilot program lasting for two years. He considers it an important step in expanding school choice.

"There's a conspiracy theory that Republicans are all about school choice because they favor charter schools," Diaz said. "A lot of school choice exists through our traditional public schools. This is another avenue for us to create more options for parents."

Obamacare absentees

Republican representatives and senators from Orange County apparently weren't too keen on the topic of the latest delegation meeting: the Affordable Care Act.

Not one GOP lawmaker from Orlando showed up to the meeting Monday night to discuss Obamacare. They reportedly missed a great deal of public testimony encouraging the Legislature to accept federal Medicaid expansion dollars to reduce the number of uninsured, according to a news release from the Orange County Democratic Party.

All six Republican members of the delegation submitted paperwork asking to be officially excused from the meeting. The eight Democrats attended.

Times/Herald staff writers Kathleen McGrory and Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.