Ana Ceballos, Author at Florida Politics - Page 3 of 24

Ana Ceballos

Ana covers politics and policy for Florida Politics. Before joining Florida Politics, she was the legislative relief reporter for The Associated Press and covered policy issues impacting immigration, the environment, criminal justice and social welfare in Florida. She holds a B.A. in journalism from San Diego State University. After graduating in 2014, she worked as a criminal justice reporter for the Monterey Herald and the Monterey County Weekly. She has also freelanced for The Washington Post at the U.S.-Mexico border covering crime in the border city of Tijuana, where she grew up. Ana is fluent in Spanish and has intermediate proficiency in Portuguese.

Florida Senate narrowly passes watered-down school safety proposal

In a bipartisan effort, the Florida House narrowly passed a watered-down school safety proposal with a $400 million price tag that will provide students with more access to mental health services and allow school districts to participate in a program that arms school staff.

“This bill will make a difference, and when it becomes law, things will start changing,” Sen. Bill Galvano said.

SB 7026 passed on a 20-18 vote with the help of Democratic Sens. Lauren Book and Kevin Rader.

Republicans who voted against the measure, most notably Sens. Greg Steube and Dennis Baxley, were against provisions with gun restrictions such as a ban on bump stock and raising the age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21.

Before the final vote, senators debated the bill for more than two hours and approved an amendment that scaled back a controversial program that would have allowed teachers to carry concealed weapons on campus to fight off active shooters.

The change better aligns the Senate’s proposal to what Parkland students and Gov. Rick Scott want: Not arming teachers.

But even with the tweak, Democrats argued the bill still allows teachers who also work as librarians, coaches or psychologists to sign up for the program.

The amendment filed by Republican Sen. Rene Garcia, who admits to not being the biggest fan of the school safety package, said the intent is to make sure the “instructional personnel who are in the classroom cannot participate in the program.”

Garcia’s amendment also changed the name of the contentious program to the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program in honor of a beloved coach who died trying to protect students from a hail of bullets on Valentine’s Day. He said Feis’ wife was “very supportive” of naming the program after him.

The measure now heads to the House for consideration.

“I don’t know if they’re going to continue to work on this in the House,” said Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who voted against the bill. “I can’t imagine them bouncing this back and we have to go thru this all over again … God help us if they send it back.”

The latest summary of the legislation, provided by the Senate communications team, is below.

State loses $18 million for disabled students after failing to implement federal law

Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration last year was unable to spend $18 million in federal funding to help mentally and physically disabled students after it failed to fully implement a federally-mandated system on time.

“Unfortunately for the students, the planning took too long and wasn’t collaborative in nature,” said Heather Beaven, the CEO for the Florida Endowment Foundation for Florida’s Graduates.

Beaven has been working to get some of those dollars for her organization, which helps disabled students transition into the workforce or college — the goal of the state-federal program.

But when determining who is to blame for the state allowing millions of dollars to fall through the cracks last fiscal year, it depends on who you talk to.

Vendors say the blame is on an “ill-thought-out process” and a “sloppy rollout” of the program; state education officials say the problem was a lack of qualified vendors and professionals.

“The first fiscal year that we got the money, for as many eligible candidates that we had, there weren’t enough vendors and professionals to spend money on,” said Meghan Collins, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.

Collins said she is “confident” the department will be able to use the federal money this fiscal year because it has done more outreach and there are now more vendors who have the credentials and training to partner with.

Susanne Homant, the president and CEO for The Able Trust, a public-private foundation established by the Florida Legislature, said her organization helped about 1,600 disabled students enter the workforce last academic year, without going through the program. She cited compatibility issues.

“We are trying to match what we are doing to the [federal] program to create the flow of those dollars,” Homant said.

Beaven echoed that one of the biggest problems in getting funds is that the state’s requirements do not always mirror what goes on in the student’s life.

“We will be here when the Department of Education finally realizes that what they created in a boardroom doesn’t square with the realities of the classroom,” said Beaven.

The program is designed to provide students ages 14-21 who are mentally or physically disabled with services that can help them transition into the workforce or to college. Mental disabilities that would meet the criteria include depression, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Once admitted into the program, youths participate in work-based learning experiences, like internships, self-advocacy training and career exploration counseling to sharpen their skills as they seek employment.

“The intent of the law is phenomenal, but states being able to get things in place 100 percent takes a little bit of time,” said Allison Flanagan, the division director for the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which runs the program.

Since 2015, when Congress passed the federal law known as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, 63 out of the 74 school districts in the state have a system in place to refer qualifying students to the program.

“We have made strides and am proud of what we are doing, but there is always room for improvement,” Flanagan added.

Tax supermajority proposal heads to voters for approval

Despite concerns raised by Senate Democrats that it would “tie the hands” of future legislators facing emergencies, the Florida Senate passed a measure Monday that would make it harder for the Legislature to increase taxes and fees in the future.

“This can tie the hands of future legislators in difficult times,” said Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez in reference to the costs that climate change and rising sea levels could bring in the coming years.

The legislation would mandate a two-thirds vote in both chambers before any tax and fee hike can be imposed on Floridians. Because the change would amend the Florida Constitution, it will need 60-percent voter-approval to take effect. They will vote on it in November.

“It’s the people’s money, not ours. Yes, two-thirds is hard to get. It should be hard to raise taxes because it is the people’s money, not ours,” Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley said.

The upper chamber pushed through the proposal on a 25-13 vote, with three Democrats — Sens. Lauren Book, Linda Stewart and Bobby Powell — voting with Republicans. Republican Sen. Tom Lee voted with Democrats.

The proposal has been a big priority of Gov. Rick Scott, who has also tried to push the supermajority vote mandate through the Florida Constitution Revision Commission.

Upon passage of the bill, Scott praised the Legislature.

“We have cut taxes more than 80 times since I’ve been in office because we know that Florida families and businesses succeed when we put their tax dollars back in their pockets,” the governor said.

“I look forward to this important amendment being on the ballot to protect families from unfair tax increases.

The Senate had originally been at odds with the House and Scott by proposing a three-fifths vote to pass tax increases, but later took the House version of the bill.

Budget negotiators face $7.8m gap over transportation, economic development issues

Florida budget leaders Saturday were still grappling with a $7.8 million funding difference on ‘bump’ issues that impact transportation, tourism and economic development.

The House and Senate met Saturday night in conference, revealing a $6 million funding gap on Department of Transportation-related items and a $9 million difference on economic opportunity projects.

The House and Senate have reached a compromise over funding for Visit Florida though, which has been an annual fight between Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature.

This year, the Legislature has agreed to fund it at $76 million even though Scott initially requested $100 million for the mostly taxpayer-funded tourism marketing agency.

When asked why it was not set at the amount the governor wants, Trujillo said money has been moved around to pay for school safety initiatives in wake of the Parkland mass school shooting.

“I think the governor will be the first to tell you that post-Parkland we have had to sacrifice priorities,” Trujillo said.

Final budget items start getting ‘bumped’

Budget conference chairs are now ironing out funding differences between the House and Senate dealing with a wide-range of policy issues.

Chairs Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Carlos Trujillo are figuring out funding for beach restoration, land acquisition and water projects. Currently, the state Legislature is split over nearly $172 million on appropriations for programs funded through Florida Forever.

In the higher education arena, most of the issues sent to budget chairs relate to member projects and implementing bill issues that amount to about $70 million. There are also other money differences revolving around PreK-12 bills that are tied to the budget.

In criminal justice, some issues that have yet to sail through deal with private prison operations and whether a reentry program at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office should get $200,000 in funding.

Bradley and Trujillo have until 10:30 a.m. Sunday to resolve the ‘bumped’ issues before they head to Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Bill Hager’s battle with Broward Sheriff spills over into Florida budget talks

After leading the charge to oust Broward Sheriff Scott Israel in the wake of Florida’s worst school shooting, Republican state Rep. Bill Hager tried to gut funding from a program run by the Sheriff’s Office.

Hager oversees the House’s criminal justice budget, which gives him large sway over funding for law enforcement-related projects and issues. This year, that included an inmate re-entry program at the Broward Sheriff’s Office with an initial $521,000 price tag.

The Palm Beach County Republican was the first lawmaker to call for Israel’s suspension, citing the Sheriff’s “neglect of duty and incompetence” when responding to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in which a 19-year-old gunman shot down 17 people. Soon after, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and 73 other Republican House members followed suit and sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking to remove Israel from office.

Democrats quickly defended Israel, who is the top cop in a predominantly Democratic county. The clash set a partisan tone around the mass shooting involving a former troubled student armed with an AR-15 rifle, an assault-style weapon that Hager voted to ban along with Democrats in the House.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office program that was zeroed out by the House would fund salaries of those who help offenders with counseling, mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as assistance when trying to find a job or housing upon finishing their sentences.

“I don’t know if it is political or not, but if it is political I am not here to punish addicts for the actions of the sheriff in that county,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who was tasked with negotiating the criminal justice budget with Hager.

The sheriff’s office last November requested a one-time $521,000 payment for the program, but on Wednesday when criminal justice budget talks started both the House and the Senate agreed on giving the department $200,000.

A day later things changed: the Senate kept its offer and the House removed all funding, bumping the item to the budget chairs.

Hager through his aide declined requests for comment on his reasons for cutting the program, but House Budget Chair Carlos Trujillo said that while he is not familiar with the issue, slashing a project is sometimes part of the budget process.

“Once we start trading priorities, 50 or 60 percent of the projects fall out,” Trujillo said.

Some Democrats, however, see it as a clear sign that GOP lawmakers are trying to attack a high-profile Democrat after staggering rounds of bad national headlines.

“If that’s the case, they should be ashamed of harming a county in their quest to publicly ruin one person,” state Rep. Evan Jenne.

Governor would have sole discretion over FDOT head appointment under proposal

A quiet change proposed Thursday under a wide-ranging commercial motor vehicle bill would strip the power of a transportation panel and give the governor sole discretion over the appointment of the state’s top transportation official.

State law tasks the Florida Transportation Commission to recommend three names to the governor when it comes to choosing the next Secretary of Transportation. The governor then decides from that short-list.

But a “strike-all” amendment filed under SB 1104 by the bill sponsor, Sen. Jeff Brandes, would delete the role of the FTC, whose members are appointed by the governor. Whether that change is approved is up to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where the bill is now sitting.

If the languages moves on to become law, the governor’s choice would still be subject to confirmation by the Senate.

Aside from that change, the sweeping transportation bill would rewrite statute that governs the Department of Transportation in several ways. That includes creating a first-degree grand theft crime for an offender who commits cargo theft and authorized the Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise to fund, construct and operate test facilities to advance autonomous vehicle technology.

Budget writers sign off on $3m to build shooting range, co-funded by NRA

At a time when the National Rifle Association is at forefront of the Legislature’s mind, House and Senate budget writers Friday morning agreed to put $3 million toward the construction of a shooting range, which is funded in part by the controversial group fighting gun bills.

Ever since the Parkland school shooting took place on Valentine’s Day, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott have pushed school safety initiatives that include some gun restrictions opposed by the NRA. Lobbyist Marion Hammer argues proposals that would impose three-day waiting period for all gun purchases and raising the age limit to buy assault-type weapons to 21 years old punish “law-abiding gun owners.”

As they face opposition from the powerful organization, lawmakers are also scrambling for money to help fund the other proposals that would help fund mental health services at schools and school “hardening.”

To find money, Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley, for example, said this week he will kill his own criminal justice bill to help fund for the proposals. The Legislature also intends to sweep millions of dollars from the state’s affordable housing trust fund.

The $3 million set aside to build the public shooting range sports park in Palm Beach County would go to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is helping build the facility in partnership with the county and the NRA.

Phase one of the construction project was completed in June 2017.

The total cost of the project is not yet known, but once completed it is expected to be one of the largest shooting sports facilities in Florida with five Olympic trap fields, five rifle and pistol shooting ranges and nine skeet fields. When the facility opens, it will be supervised by range safety officers and volunteers.

“This center is being created to offer target shooting enthusiasts a place to gain skills and knowledge for safe, responsible firearm handling and target shooting,” the website for the FWC states.

Memos on construction plans note “recreational target shooting is a big business in Florida” and that the “sporting arms ammunition industry supports 14,850 jobs and generates $695 million in wages.”

Senate, House at odds over $4m to pay for private prison operations

Private-prison giant GEO Group wants $4 million in taxpayer money to pay for correctional officers’ salaries at seven of its state-contracted facilities — but the House won’t budge.

The House’s top criminal justice budget-writer, state Rep. Bill Hager, said his chamber has taken the stance to zero out the private prison’s request because the Florida-based company decided to enter into contracts and therefore, it should have that money in place.

For the Senate, however, it is a “fairness issue.”

“The issue here is that a couple of years ago we raised salaries for correctional officers in our public facilities, but we never extended that pay increase to correctional officers in private facilities,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, who is the Senate’s criminal justice budget chair.

The one-time payment request by the private prison falls under HB 3745, sponsored by state Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican. Because the allocation is non-recurring, the prison company would have to lobby for the money again next year.

According to the appropriations project request, The Geo Group will be seeking $10 million over the next three years for the project.

In 2016, the private prison group gave nearly $2 million in political contributions, most notably $40,000 to Senate President Joe Negron and $100,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Committee. The company also gave $43,000 to the failed congressional bid of his wife, Rebecca.

As the Legislature began final budget negotiations this week, the House and Senate are only $238,422 apart in the criminal justice arena as of Thursday, a big improvement from a day before when they were more than $20 million apart.

In impromptu Capitol visit, Rick Scott reiterates: don’t arm teachers

In a rare political move, Gov. Rick Scott and the father of a 14-year-old Parkland shooting victim jointly addressed the House and Senate floors on Thursday and asked legislators to set aside differences and ensure schools are safe sans armed teachers.

“I want to make sure there is law enforcement in our schools,” Scott told reporters upon exiting the chambers. “I don’t believe in arming teachers.”

While talking to each chamber, Ryan Petty, the father of Alaina Petty, who was gunned down on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, told legislators he is in support of the governor’s proposal, which does not include training and arming teachers with guns.

“I’m here to speak in favor of what the governor is proposing,” Petty said. “My ask of you is: let’s set aside our differences and make sure our schools are safe. With your help, Florida can lead.”

The governor has been clear on his stance: he is not in support of arming teachers, a proposal the Legislature is pushing for in spite of opposition from Parkland students and parents.

Even with home rule as an option, Scott said does not believe in training teachers and arming them with guns to protect student in case of an active shooting situation.

When asking if he would like to see an assault weapon ban in Scott’s proposal, Petty said his goal is to get something done in the Republican-controlled Legislature in honor of his daughter.

“If this evolves into a gun control debate we are going to miss our opportunity to get something done,” Petty said. “What is different of the governor’s plan is we are focusing on securing our schools and that is what we need to do.”

The House and Senate costly initiative that would include more funding for mental health services in school and school “hardening” are ready for the full floors for a final vote.

“Our message is simple, this time must be different we have an opportunity to get our schools secure,” Petty said. “We want to make sure other families don’t go through what our family has gone through.”

“We owe it to our students.”

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