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  1. Florida Politics

$419M schools bill headed to Gov. Scott, after barely surviving Senate vote

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers struggled to pass a controversial $419 million, 278-page K-12 public schools bill on Monday, the final day of the annual session — as senators acknowledged parts of the rushed legislation were flawed and would need to be fixed when the Legislature reconvenes in 2018.

However, the prospect of a possible veto by Republican Gov. Rick Scott was floated even before the Monday night vote, which would stop the legislation from becoming law.

The Senate endorsed HB 7069 by the narrowest possible margin after two hours of lackluster and largely negative debate, voting 20-18 to pass it.

Three Republicans joined the 15-member Democratic caucus in opposition: René García of Hialeah, Denise Grimsley of Sebring and David Simmons of Altamonte Springs — who, as the pre-K-12 education budget chairman, handled the bill on the floor and struggled to defend it.

Earlier in the day, the Republican-led House made quick work to pass the bill within an hour, by a 73-36 vote with all but one Democrat — Miami Rep. Roy Hardemon — opposed. "I think that is going to go down as one of the greatest K-12 bills in the history of the state of Florida," House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, told reporters Friday.

HB 7069 was a top priority of Corcoran's. Miami Republican Michael Bileca and Hialeah Republican Manny Diaz Jr. — the House education policy and pre-K-12 budget chairmen, respectively — were heavily involved in crafting it.

But in a manner that drew heavy criticism, the large and wide-ranging bill was negotiated and finalized in private and made public for the first time Friday evening — less than 66 hours before the House voted and 71 hours before the Senate voted. (Simmons said he saw a first draft of HB 7069 only at 7 p.m. Thursday.)

"This isn't a finished bill, it's got problems — big problems," Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said. "It's a litany of bad ideas … that do not take the needs of the student into account."

The legislation includes dozens of different policies affecting public education, but its hallmark provisions are a $234 million bonus package for most teachers and some top principals, and a contentious $140 million "Schools of Hope" program to help struggling traditional public schools largely through incentives to new privately managed charter schools.

"I believe at the end of the day we passed a bill that will be transformational for students," Diaz told the Times/Herald. "We reward teachers with bonuses and provide failing schools options."

In fielding questions on the "Hope" plan, Simmons acknowledged parts of it would be "exceedingly difficult to implement" and "the thought is to try to correct it after we pass the legislation."

"We come back in September and try to make it so we clean up the rough edges that we have," Simmons said, referencing legislative committee weeks in advance of the 2018 session, which starts in January.

Lawmakers had no opportunity to amend the bill, because it was tied to the 2017-18 budget package that also passed Monday. Many parents, teachers and school administrators wanted the Legislature to reject it and were disappointed by the outcome.

However, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, began the day's floor session by almost foreshadowing a potential veto by Scott. Latvala asked senators to support the bill and let Scott decide whether it becomes law.

"When the light of day is more fully shown on it, the governor has the right and the responsibility to look at that bill and make individual decisions about what he allows to become law," Latvala said. "In this case, in my opinion — my personal choice is going to be to let him do that ... We'll pass it down and let him do his job."

A two-thirds' vote in both chambers — 80 votes in the House and 27 votes in the Senate — would be necessary to override a veto, and Monday's outcome indicates HB 7069 wouldn't have such support.

Diaz said Scott has the right to veto but doing so would reject the teacher bonuses, a reduction to standardized testing and "millions of dollars provided to our neediest students and schools."

"That is a decision he will have to make," Diaz said.

Few Republicans spoke in favor of the bill on Monday, and in the Senate, the three that did had little to gush about.

"We're just passing a bill that was formulated by the House, and that bothers me," Gulf Breeze Republican Sen. Doug Broxson said, but he supported it in the hopes of lawmakers fixing it next session.

House Democrats said the few, narrow positives they saw in the wide-ranging education bill — such as daily school recess for most elementary school students — didn't outweigh the larger policy reforms that most concerned them, such as "Schools of Hope" or requiring school districts to share with charter schools their local tax revenue earmarked for capital projects. Democrats provided input to improve the House policy, but most remained opposed after seeing the end result.

Miami Democratic Rep. Kionne McGhee called the legislation as a whole "corporate welfare" and "one of the worst bills I've seen in my time in (the) Legislature."

"This bill could be a disaster for traditional public schools and I just can't vote for it," said Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston.

HB 7069 — which ballooned after Corcoran demanded it include various education policy unrelated to spending — has myriad proposals gleaned from at least 55 House and Senate bills filed this session, as well as language never before discussed or considered publicly or — in one case — that was already defeated by a Senate committee.

As the Senate took up the bill, Broxson noted the chamber's floor discussion was "our at-large committee meeting" to hear the bill — an observation that highlighted the lack of public hearings on HB 7069 and the lack of Senate consideration on "Schools of Hope," specifically. (Before Monday, the Senate had discussed earlier versions of the "Hope" plan for only about 90 minutes, compared to the 9 hours the House spent on its bill.)

Broward County Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, unsuccessfully attempted to stop the Senate from taking up HB 7069. He called a point of order to formally challenge it, saying doing so violated multiple Senate rules, but Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, rejected it as "not well taken."

"What did they (the House) leave us with? A piece of junk they're forcing us to vote on now. It's a monstrosity," Farmer said.

"We know it's bad public policy but here we are in a take-it-or-leave-it situation," Farmer added. " 'Schools of Hope' is so utterly offensive and repugnant to teachers, principals and parents who have worked so hard to help build and function our public education system."

"It's not a piece of junk or whatever," Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said. "I'm going to support the bill because I actually read it."

Latvala took responsibility for allowing HB 7069 to get out of hand, saying: "I could have cut that off anytime; I could have cut that off at the beginning by going to (President Joe Negron, R-Stuart) and saying it just wasn't what we needed to do. I didn't do that."

"If there's fault to be had with one of these bills that has gotten a little bit out of control, just understand that we won't do this again under my watch on this (Appropriations) committee — I promise you," he said.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark