Lloyd Dunkelberger, Author at Florida Politics

Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger is a Tallahassee-based political reporter and columnist; he most recently served as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Forget Brett Kavanaugh; Florida facing its own ‘Supreme’ drama — in triplicate

While the nation was fixated on the drama surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, Floridians were reminded this week that they have their own Supreme Court controversy in triplicate.

Gov. Rick Scott reasserted his claim in court that he has the power, before he leaves office in January, to appoint replacements for three Florida Supreme Court justices who have reached a mandatory retirement age. Opponents contend the next governor, who takes office on Jan. 8, has that right.

Meanwhile, former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor, told the Florida Chamber of Commerce this week that he intends to appoint the new justices.

“It’s important that we have a governor who understands that we have to appoint solid constitutionalists to our state courts, including our state Supreme Court,” he told the chamber members, who were meeting in Orlando.

“The next governor probably, and I know there’s a little bit of controversy about when these appointments happen, but I’m presuming that I get elected governor and get sworn in, that I will have three appointments to the state Supreme Court,” DeSantis said.

It’s not the first time DeSantis has asserted his right to make the court appointments. It became an issue in his final debate with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

“They’re not your appointments. They’re Gov. Scott’s appointments,” Putnam told him, saying DeSantis was aligning himself with groups like the League of Women Voters of Florida, who is challenging Scott on the court appointments.

For his part, Scott, who expects to get a list of potential court appointees by Nov. 8, has said he will work on the appointments with the winner of the Nov. 6 election.

Reaching an accommodation with DeSantis, who shares a similar conservative philosophy with Scott, seems possible. But if Democrat Andrew Gillum prevails, Floridians can expect the appointment controversy to intensify.

WHO’S GOT THE POWER

Scott’s lawyers on Wednesday argued the governor has the authority to appoint the replacements for justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who are all leaving the court in early January because they have reached the mandatory retirement age.

The lawsuit, filed by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause, has asked the Supreme Court to block Scott’s action, through a procedure known as a “writ of quo warranto,” arguing the new governor who takes office on Jan. 8 should have that appointment power.

But in a 33-page res1ponse, Scott’s lawyers said he is following the precedent of beginning the appointment process before the vacancies actually occur, noting numerous justices have been appointed using this procedure in order to avoid prolonged vacancies on the court.

“The petitioners’ interpretation of the applicable constitutional provision is contrary to its plain language, the long-standing historical practice of the judicial nominating commissions for the Supreme Court and district courts of appeal, and the clearly articulated public policy underlying Article V of the Florida Constitution: avoiding extended vacancies in judicial office,” the lawyers wrote.

Earlier this month, Scott directed the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission to begin accepting and reviewing applications for the court appointments. The commission has set an Oct. 8 deadline for the applications, followed by a Nov. 8 deadline — two days after the general election — for submitting names of potential justices to the governor.

Scott, a Republican who is running against incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, said he has the “expectation” that he and the incoming governor could reach an agreement on the appointments.

Underscoring the legal challenge is the fact that the new appointments are likely to reshape the seven-member Supreme Court for years, if not decades. Pariente, Lewis and Quince are part of a liberal bloc, which now holds a slim 4-3 majority, that has thwarted Scott and the Republican-dominated Legislature on numerous occasions since the governor took office in 2011.

SEX AND THE SENATE

In another Florida parallel to the Kavanaugh controversy, where the nominee has been accused of sexually harassing women while in high school or college, a sexual discrimination case involving the Florida Senate advanced this week.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and four high-ranking senators — including President Joe Negron — are among the witnesses being asked to testify in a discrimination case filed by legislative aide Rachel Perrin Rogers, who accuses the Senate of retaliation after she filed a sexual harassment complaint last year against former Sen. Jack Latvala.

Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who held the powerful post of Senate budget chief and was a candidate for governor when Perrin Rogers’ allegations against him first came out, resigned from the Senate shortly before the legislative session began in January. He has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.

Latvala is among the witnesses Tiffany Cruz, a lawyer who represents Perrin Rogers, is asking to appear at a Jan. 14 federal administrative-court hearing in Tampa, according to court documents first reported Wednesday by Politico Florida.

The list of witnesses gives just a glimpse into the allegations made by Perrin Rogers, who filed the discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January.

One of the witnesses is Jean Seawright, who was hired by the Senate to conduct an investigation into Perrin Rogers after the aide filed the complaint against Latvala, according to court documents. Senate Special Master Ronald Swanson, who investigated Perrin Rogers’ allegations against Latvala, is also on the witness list.

Negron, a Stuart Republican who is leaving office after the November elections, “has knowledge that complainant suffered retaliation for making a report of sexual harassment,” Cruz wrote in a four-page list of witnesses submitted Tuesday to U.S. Administrative Law Judge Alexander Fernández.

The Senate president denied anyone punished Perrin Rogers, a high-ranking aide who works for Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, after she complained about Latvala.

“The complaint of sexual harassment, in this case, was immediately and fully investigated. At all times the Senate has acted appropriately and there has been no retaliation,” Negron said in a text message Wednesday.

But Cruz told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday that “there has been constant retaliation” against Perrin Rogers since she first complained about Latvala last fall. And the retaliation got worse after Swanson’s report was completed and the Senate aide filed her discrimination complaint, Cruz said.

“Instead, what we’ve seen happen here is the Senate has taken almost no action as the employer to protect Rachel when the retaliation was happening, and then subsequent to the investigation, they’ve actively taken steps to treat her differently as a result of her complaint,” she said.

The investigation into Latvala came amid a national spotlight on revelations of sexual harassment lodged against powerful men in Hollywood, business and politics that led to the demise of entertainment-industry titans such as Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and Les Moonves.

STORY OF THE WEEK

Gov. Scott reasserted his right to appoint three new justices to the Florida Supreme Court before he leaves office in early January.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“The message that women are receiving, to me, is you become a pariah for saying something about any type of misconduct that’s happening to you by a man, especially by a man of power. If you say something too late, you get attacked for that. If you say something right away, you get attacked for that. So essentially the message is, be silent, or these are the consequences.” — Tiffany Cruz, a lawyer who is representing legislative aide Rachel Perrin Rogers, who is suing the Florida Senate in a discrimination case.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Education board backs $673 million boost for schools

The Florida Board of Education on Friday advanced a $21.8 billion request for public school funding in the next budget year, including a $200 boost in per-student funds and increased funding for school safety initiatives.

Highlights of the 2019-20 budget proposal include:

— An overall $673 million, or 3.5 percent, increase, compared to the current budget for the 67 school districts.

— An increase in per-student funding from $7,407 to $7,607.

— A $101 million increase to pay for an additional 13,680 new students expected in classrooms next fall. In total, there will be nearly 2.9 million students in the K-12 system next year.

— A $100 million increase in the “safe schools” initiative, boosting total funding to $262 million. The funding allows districts to hire sworn law enforcement officers to protect school campuses.

— $67.5 million for the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian program, which provides funding for the screening and training of armed civilian safety employees, under the supervision of the local sheriff, for the schools. Lawmakers earmarked the same amount for the guardian program in the current year’s budget.

— A $51 million increase in a grant program that allows districts to improve the physical safety of schools, for a total of $150 million in the next academic year.

— A $10 million increase in a program that allows districts to establish or expand school-based mental-health programs, for a total of $79 million.

The budget proposal is part of a lengthy process that will culminate early next May, when the 2019 Legislature passes a new state budget, which takes effect July 1. There is more uncertainty this year as Tallahassee prepares for new legislative leaders in November and a new governor in January.

But the budget proposal, which was approved by the Board of Education at a meeting in Naples, drew support from education advocates.

“We appreciate the many concerns that you addressed,” Kamela Patton, superintendent of schools for Collier County, told the board on behalf of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

Patton praised the increases for school-safety initiatives as well as a $75 million increase in transportation funding for the districts. She also said the schools would be helped by the increase in the so-called “base student allocation,” which provides operational funding for the districts.

In the current budget, the allocation increase was slashed to an average of 47 cents per student, as lawmakers shifted funding to major school-safety programs following the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The new budget proposal includes a more robust $118.75 per-student increase for the allocation.

The $673 million increase in the K-12 budget is built on a $170 million increase in state funding coupled with a $503 million increase in local school property tax collections.

The bulk of the local tax increase, or $421 million, comes from the “required local effort” levy. The budget proposal would keep that tax rate the same as it is now, with the increased funding coming from taxes on new construction and taxes on increased property values.

In recent years, the House has pushed to offset the rise in local property taxes. The Senate has favored using the full increase.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said Friday that the Senate will continue to advocate for using the entire increase in the new budget negotiations. In the current budget, the House and Senate reached an agreement to use only the increase in local school property taxes related to new construction.

In other areas of the education budget proposal, the Board of Education backed a series of increases for the state college system, including a new $26 million initiative to help the 28 schools develop “workforce training” programs.

The proposal also includes a new $10 million initiative for safety and mental-health programs for the colleges, and a $4 million increase for industry-certification programs.

The colleges would also continue to receive $60 million in annual funding based on performance metrics.

And the budget proposal includes $520 million for the Bright Futures scholarship program, to provide merit aid to more than 103,000 students attending state universities and colleges next year.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Judge ponders whether to remove victims’ rights proposal from ballot

Voters should not be given a chance to decide the fate of a proposed constitutional amendment expanding rights for crime victims because the ballot language is misleading, lawyers opposing the measure told a Tallahassee judge Friday.

Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers heard arguments on whether Amendment 6, approved by the Constitution Commission Revision, should remain on the Nov. 6 general-election ballot. The proposal would expand rights for crime victims, would raise the retirement age for judges and would change the way laws and rules are interpreted in judicial proceedings.

“However, in actuality, Amendment 6 does much, much more. Amendment 6, among other things, restricts the constitutional rights of those accused of crimes,” said Mark Herron, an attorney representing Naples defense lawyer Lee Hollander and the Florida League of Women Voters, who filed the legal challenge.

Herron said the ballot language does not inform voters of the full impact of the measure, including changes affecting the right to a speedy trial and the appeals process for criminal defendants.

“The summary and title, on the whole, fail to give voters information regarding the true scope of the amendment and its chief purposes by entirely omitting several significant changes made by the amendment,” Herron told Gievers.

But Barry Richard, a lawyer representing Marsy’s Law of Florida, said there are no constitutional rights “that are being eliminated by this amendment,” which he said advances a new set of rights for victims of crime.

Richard said for a court to remove an amendment from the ballot; it must find something “material” was left out of the ballot summary. If there are no rights being eliminated, then the challenge falls short of that legal standard, according to Richard.

He said the criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial, protected by both the state and federal Constitutions, would not be changed by the proposal. But the amendment would give “a concomitant right to the same speedy trial” to crime victims, Richard said.

A key argument in the challenge is that the proposed amendment would eliminate a phrase in the Florida Constitution that outlines rights for crime victims but says they are established “to the extent that these rights do not interfere with the constitutional rights of the accused.”

Herron said Amendment 6 is fatally flawed because the ballot summary is “entirely silent” on the elimination of that phrase, which he characterized as an existing “fundamental” constitutional right for criminal defendants.

But Richard said the challengers are relying on a “partial clause” that would be replaced by the new rights language outlined in the proposed amendment.

“That’s not a free-standing phrase. It does not create a free-standing right in the Florida Constitution,” Richard said.

As another problem, Herron cited the ballot summary’s failure to mention that corporations and “other business entities” may be able to classify themselves as crime victims, if the amendment is adopted by voters.

Richard acknowledged it was unclear from the text of the amendment whether corporations could claim that right. But he said that was an “ambiguity” that would have to be resolved “in a different courtroom, in a different time” and should not be part of the ballot challenge.

Gievers closely questioned a lawyer from Attorney General Pam Bondi’ s office about whether the ballot title or summary “tells voters what the effect on the existing criminal justice system would be from the standpoint of the criminal defendants.”

Senior Assistant Attorney General Karen Brodeen told Gievers the summary does not contain that information because there would be no impact on the rights of criminal defendants.

“I don’t think that’s a valid argument. I don’t think there’s going to be any effect,” Brodeen said.

In addition to the challenge raised by Herron’s clients, a separate lawsuit, filed by Plantation Key resident Amy Knowles, is also asking the court to remove Amendment 6 from the November ballot. Gievers heard arguments in both cases Friday.

The major portion of the proposed amendment would expand existing rights for crime victims, while adding nine new rights in the state Constitution. The new rights for crime victims impact a number of areas, including setting bail, pretrial releases, restitution and the disclosure of information.

The proposal, known as “Marsy’s Law,” is part of a broader national movement stemming from the 1983 death of a California woman, Marsy Nicholas, who was stalked and killed by an ex-boyfriend.

In addition to the crime victims’ proposal, Amendment 6 would also raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 years to 75. And it would eliminate an existing legal standard that requires a deferment to governmental agencies in the interpretation of laws and rules in judicial proceedings.

Gievers’ decision is likely to be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which is already reviewing six of the eight constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the Constitution Revision Commission.

In total, there are 13 proposed state constitutional amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot. Each amendment must win support from at least 60 percent of the voters in order to be enacted.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Students get boost from Bright Futures changes

Florida “medallion scholars” will be among the biggest beneficiaries this academic year of the state’s efforts to expand financial aid for university and state college students.

As students enroll for their fall classes this month, the projected 46,000 medallion scholars will have their Bright Futures scholarships increased to cover 75 percent of tuition and fees, up from a prior scholarship amount that covered about half of the cost. Tuition and fees average more than $210 per credit hour at the larger state universities.

In addition, the expansion will allow medallion scholars to use their merit-based scholarships for summer classes in 2019.

The expansion is part of a record $519 million Bright Futures program approved this year by lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott. Funding for the medallion portion of the scholarships increased from about $85 million in 2017-2018 to about $190 million this year.

The funding and changes, which are included the new $88.7 billion state budget and related legislation (SB 4), also make permanent the expansion of aid for the top-performing Bright Futures students, known as “academic scholars,” to cover 100 percent of tuition and fees. They also receive $300 for the fall and spring semesters for the cost of textbooks.

The academic scholars, who will total about 48,000 this year, were able to use their Bright Futures aid for summer classes in 2018, which is the first time that has occurred since 2000-2001 budget year.

The Bright Futures expansion will largely benefit students attending Florida’s 12 state universities. But the scholarships also help students studying at Florida’s 28 state colleges, with more than 6,000 college students qualifying for medallion aid in 2016-2017 and about 1,750 qualifying as academic scholars.

Although state analysts are still refining their latest projections for the aid programs, preliminary data also showed more than 195,000 students will benefit from the state’s largest need-based aid, known as “student assistance grants.” The average award this year is expected to be just under $1,400 per student.

About 86 percent of that aid will benefit students attending public universities and colleges, and the remainder will help students at private schools and other postsecondary programs.

Meanwhile, more than 39,000 state residents attending private colleges and universities in Florida will benefit from the newly renamed “effective access to student education (EASE),” grants program. The maximum award for those scholarships, which total $137 million, will increase from $3,300 to $3,500 this academic year. EASE formerly was known as the Florida Resident Access Grant, or FRAG, program.

Schools projected to have the largest number of EASE grants include Bethune-Cookman College (2,300), Keiser University (7,000), Nova Southeastern University (2,150), Southeastern University (2,100) and the University of Miami (2,400).

Also, the Benacquisto scholarships, which cover full tuition and fees and provide a generous living allowance for National Merit scholars, will be expanded to include out-of-state students for the first time this year.

State analysts project more than 1,100 students in the program in 2018-2019, with approximately 59 out-of-state scholars.

The aid expansion comes as Florida continues to provide higher education to students at one of the lowest costs in the country. In 2017-2018, the College Board reported Florida’s average $6,360 in tuition and fees to attend a public four-year school ranked second-lowest in the nation, below the national average of $9,970.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Education board signs off on ‘Hope’ scholarships rule

The Florida Board of Education on Wednesday unanimously approved a rule to help move forward with a controversial new program that will let bullied students transfer to private schools.

With some 2.8 million students returning to their classrooms next month, “Hope” scholarships will allow students who are victims of bullying or other violence to receive public funding to move to private schools or other public schools.

The program, a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, was approved this year by lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott. Under it, once an incident is reported to a school principal, the school district must notify the student’s parents about the scholarship opportunity within 15 days or upon the completion of an investigation, whichever occurs first.

The rule approved by the state board includes a “notification form” that will be sent to parents if a student is involved in an incident that could qualify for the scholarship. The form specifically cites 10 types of incidents including bullying, harassment, hazing, threat or intimidation, physical attacks and fighting. Potentially more-violent incidents include battery, kidnapping, robbery and sexual offenses.

Tom Grady, a member of the state board, asked what provisions are in place to prevent fraud or abuse in the new voucher-like scholarship program.

“What prevents someone who would just like to have a scholarship to attend another school from simply claiming they are the victim of the incident that would give rise to the scholarship?” Grady asked.

Adam Miller, director of the Department of Education’s Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, said in addition to the specific eligibility categories cited in the new law, there is an additional “evaluation process” for schools that have a higher number of transfers.

If a school reports 10 or more students have used Hope scholarships to leave, it will trigger an independent evaluation of that school, Miller said.

“A third party actually goes in and evaluates the climate of school, will evaluate the investigation process that takes place at the school district. And some of that (possible abuse of the program) comes to light through that evaluation process,” Miller said.

Grady also asked how qualifying incidents are defined. Miller said the school districts will use standards already in place under the state’s “school environmental safety incident reporting system.”

For instance, bullying is defined as “systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students or employees that is severe or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.”

The Hope scholarship plan drew heavy debate during this year’s legislative session, with many Democrats arguing it is more about expanding school vouchers than addressing problems with bullying.

In the 2015-2016 school year, districts reported more than 47,000 incidents that could qualify under the new scholarship program, with nearly 22,000 fighting incidents being the most common.

However, funding for the scholarships is unclear, at least in the first year, and could limit their use.

The program will rely on voluntary contributions made by Floridians when they buy new or used vehicles. Beginning Oct. 1, motorists will be able shift up to $105 from the sales taxes they would normally pay on vehicle transactions to the Hope scholarship program.

But state officials and Step Up For Students, a nonprofit agency that will administer the scholarships, do not expect to start seeing the actual contributions until late November or early December.

State analysts project 7,302 partial-year Hope scholarships being awarded in the 2018-2019 school year, with some $27 million in funding. The scholarships will be awarded on a “first-come, first-served” basis.

Once fully implemented for private-school transfers, the scholarships, which are based on the statewide per-student funding level, would be worth more than $7,112 for high-school students for a full year, $6,816 for middle-school students and $6,519 for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The program provides up to $750 in transportation costs for students transferring to other public schools.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Internet tax ruling could be major for Florida

A U.S. Supreme Court decision expanding the ability of states to pull in tax dollars from online purchases could have a significant impact in Florida.

In a 5-4 ruling Thursday, the nation’s highest court upheld a South Dakota law that allowed the state to apply its sales tax to major online retailers, even if they had no physical presence in the state. The ruling reversed a 1992 court decision that held online retailers could only be required to collect and remit sales taxes if they had stores or some other “nexus” in states.

Brick-and-mortar retailers in Florida and other states have long complained that allowing some online retailers to evade sales taxes creates a competitive advantage for the remote sellers. Consumers were supposed to voluntarily pay sales taxes on remote purchases, although it rarely happened.

In his majority opinion Thursday, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited the expansion of internet commerce since the court’s 1992 decision, noting national mail-order sales totaled $180 billion at that point, compared to $453.5 billion in online sales in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“(The prior decision) puts both local businesses and many interstate businesses with physical presence at a competitive disadvantage relative to remote sellers,” Kennedy wrote. “Remote sellers can avoid the regulatory burdens of tax collection and can offer de facto lower prices caused by the widespread failure of consumers to pay the tax on their own.”

In a dissenting opinion citing the court’s prior ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts said federal lawmakers, not the court, should decide whether to tax remote sales.

“Any alteration to those rules with the potential to disrupt the development of such a critical segment of the economy should be undertaken by Congress,” he wrote.

The court decision was praised by Florida business groups.

“For years, online-only retailers have exploited this loophole that allows them not to collect sales tax, which has given them an unfair competitive advantage over brick-and-mortar stores,” said James Miller, a spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation. “This decision finally levels that playing field, and I think that’s all any business owner wants.”

The court decision could also be important in Florida because of the state’s heavy reliance on sales-tax revenue. Expected to generate more than $24 billion for the state government in the current fiscal year, the sales tax is the single largest source of funding for the state.

Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a business-oriented advocacy group, said the ability to apply the sales tax to more internet sales will keep the state’s tax structure in sync with the evolving economy.

“The taxpayers of Florida really rely heavily on the sales tax. You’ve got to have a modern sales tax, so we don’t have to have any other kind of tax that people don’t want,” Calabro said. “So, by relying on a sales tax, you have to make sure it’s modern and up to date.”

The exact impact of the ruling on Florida’s sales tax collections is unknown but it could be significant.

Last November, the federal Government Accountability Office estimated that states could have collected between $8.5 billion and $13.4 billion in sales taxes in 2017 if they had expanded taxing authority. The estimate represented between 2 and 4 percent of total state and local sales tax collections in 2016, the analysts said.

In testimony before the Florida House Ways & Means Committee in January 2017, analysts gave a rough estimate of $200 million in potential sales tax revenue resulting from applying the tax to more remote sales.

In Florida, the sales tax has been applied to a wider range of internet sales over the last few years. In 2014, Amazon, the largest online retailer, began collecting the tax in Florida after it opened a series of “fulfillment centers” in the state. But the tax is not applied to “third-party” sales through the Amazon network.

And according to the Supreme Court case, some large online retailers do not collect taxes on their remote sales. Wayfair Inc., an online retailer of home goods and furniture that challenged the South Dakota law, had more than $4.7 billion in net revenue in 2017, according to the opinion.

But even with the court’s decision, not all remote sales are likely to be taxed. The South Dakota law only applied the tax to online retailers that had at least $100,000 of annual sales in the state or 200 individual transactions.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Report shows Florida Latinos bridging education gap

A new report shows Florida is outperforming the nation when it comes to awarding college degrees to Latino residents but lags when it comes to blacks receiving postsecondary degrees.

The Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for closing the education gap for minority groups, gave Florida an “A-plus” for its 34.2 percent college-degree attainment rate in 2016 for Latinos in a report released Thursday.

Florida was well above a 22 percent national degree-attainment average for Latino adults, but still below the 47 percent rate for white adults nationally.

Florida earned a “C-minus” for its 28.8 percent degree-attainment rate for black adults, below the 30.8 percent national average.

“If state leaders are serious about racial equity and reaching their goals to increase the number of college-educated residents in their states, they need to be honest about what their data are telling them about black, Latino and other racial or ethnic groups,” Andrew Nichols, one of the researchers who co-wrote the report, said in a statement.

“In many cases, states will not improve racial equity and reach their degree attainment goals by simply focusing on overall rates and ignoring the large racial gaps that exist,” Nichols said.

The state Higher Education Coordinating Council and the Lumina Foundation, which is helping the state develop policies to increase the percentage of Floridians with college degrees or postsecondary certificates, have identified and are working on reducing the racial achievement gaps.

“There are significant gaps in educational attainment that must be closed — specifically, gaps linked to race and ethnicity,” Lumina said in a report on Florida released in February. “Because educational attainment beyond high school has become the key determinant of economic opportunity, closing these gaps is crucial.”

On the positive side, the new report puts Florida at the front of the nation in nearly every category for degree-attainment for Latino residents. Florida has the smallest achievement gap between Latino and white adults — 10 percentage points — of any state in the survey.

Its 34.2 percent degree-attainment rate was second among the states surveyed, trailing only New Hampshire, which has a much smaller Latino population.

The attainment rate for Latino adults has increased by 8 percentage points since 2000, the second largest gain in the survey, trailing only New York.

“Florida and New York stand out as states with large Latino populations that have improved the most,” the Education Trust report said.

The data was less positive for black adults in Florida. The 28.8 percent attainment rate ranked 25th among the states surveyed, trailing some of its Southern peers, including Texas ranked 14th at 32.2 percent and Virginia ranked 12th at 32.8 percent.

The attainment rate for black adults increased by 9 percentage points since 2000, tying Florida with South Carolina for the 10th spot in the rankings.

Florida’s achievement gap between black and white adults of 15.5 percentage points put it in the middle of the states, which ranged from a low of 5 percent in West Virginia to a high of 23.5 percent in Connecticut. However, the report noted that the small achievement gap in some states was more reflective of a low degree-attainment rate for white adults as well as black residents.

The Education Trust’s report was based on U.S. Census data, including the annual American Community Surveys. It defined degree attainment as adults between the ages of 25 and 64 who held an associate, bachelor’s or graduate degree. The Education Trust is based in Washington, D.C.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Adam Putnam says public safety ‘not at risk’ in license snafu

Although his department issued concealed-weapons licenses to 291 applicants who should have been disqualified, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Wednesday the breakdown has been corrected and there was no threat to the public.

“Public safety was not at risk,” Putnam told reporters after a state Cabinet meeting. “Two-hundred and ninety-one people who should not have gotten a license to carry a concealed weapon did so, but they were revoked as a result of the processes that we put in place.”

The problem, first reported Friday by the Tampa Bay Times, has led to heavy criticism of Putnam amid his campaign for governor. His comments Wednesday were similar to other statements he has made in recent days to address the controversy.

The issue began in February 2016 when a Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services employee stopped logging into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to see if applicants seeking state licenses to carry concealed weapons or firearms should be “flagged” for issues like drug abuse, involuntary mental confinements, dishonorable military discharges or undocumented immigrant status.

The problem wasn’t discovered until March 2017 when an investigation began that revealed 365 applications merited further review, leading the department to revoke 291 of the licenses. The employee who failed to carry out the background reviews was fired.

Putnam said there is no indication that any of the disqualified people who received concealed-weapons licenses were involved in criminal activity while they had the permits.

“Any time that anyone who has a concealed weapon license is arrested we are made aware of that. That reporting occurs on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, depending on the arresting agency,” Putnam said.

Although information is slower coming from arrests made outside of Florida, Putnam said there were “no flags” on the people who should not have been licensed. “We have not received information on any of the 291,” he said.

Putnam also emphasized that all the applicants were run through three databases, which are managed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, including two that are based on fingerprints and the so-called NICS, which is based on names of applicants.

“I am absolutely committed to public safety and managing this program accurately and thoroughly, which is why frankly I am so disappointed that there was a breakdown and why we have taken actions to make sure this wouldn’t happen again,” he said.

Since the problem was discovered, Putnam said his agency has “strengthened the information flow and technology transfer” with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on background checks.

The Office of Inspector General in Putnam’s agency issued a report on the review breakdown last June. But it did not become public knowledge until Friday when it was reported by the Tampa Bay Times.

Putnam deflected questions on whether his agency should have alerted the public to the problem. He said, “stacks of inspector general reports” are issued routinely in state government but are not publicized, although the reports are available as public records.

As to how the breakdown occurred with the now-terminated employee, Putnam said: “It was the dumbest thing in the world. It happens to anybody with a computer. She emailed IT (information technology) and said my password isn’t working. And they emailed her back with instructions on how to fix the problem.”

But the former employee failed to follow through on the advice, Putnam said.

“I dropped the ball – I know I did that,” she told the investigators. “I should have been doing it and I didn’t.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Pell Grant students trail in graduation rates

Florida’s public universities graduated 57 percent of low-income students receiving federal Pell Grants in six years, but that trailed the graduation rate of non-Pell students, a new study shows.

The analysis by Third Way, a Washington, D.C.- based think tank, used newly reported federal data to track a 2010 cohort of first-time, full-time Pell students in 1,566 four-year institutions across the country, including public and private schools.

“As colleges continue to bill themselves as mobility machines for students, this new data lets us (home) in on how well institutions are serving Pell students, who need the economic security of a college degree the most,” the report said.

The Third Way analysts found a majority of the four-year public and private schools nationally do not serve Pell students well and that the six-year graduation rate for Pell students is 18 percent lower than for non-Pell students at those institutions.

“We already know we have a completion crisis in higher education — and this new data shows us that this problem is even more acute for low- and moderate-income students,” the report said.

Florida universities performed better than the national average. The 57 percent graduation rate for the 2010 group of Pell students in Florida schools was well above a national average of 49 percent for public institutions, although three schools were below the average: Florida A&M University, 39 percent; Florida Gulf Coast University, 41 percent; and the University of West Florida, 47 percent.

An average gap of 5 percentage points between Pell and non-Pell graduation rates in Florida was significantly below the national average of 16 percentage points for public schools, according to the report.

The largest gaps were at New College of Florida, 14 percentage points; Florida A&M, 8 percentage points; the University of Florida, 7 percentage points; Florida State University, 7 percentage points; and Florida Gulf Coast, 7 percentage points.

On the positive side, the University of South Florida and Florida Atlantic University had higher graduation rates for their Pell students compared to non-Pell students. Florida International University and the University of North Florida graduated Pell and non-Pell students at the same rate.

The Third Way study put a particular focus on four-year institutions that serve large numbers of Pell students, who received an average award of $3,740 last year. More than three-quarters of those students came from families that earned $40,000 or less a year. The study defined the higher Pell institutions as having at least 37 percent of their 2010 cohort receiving the federal aid.

Under that criteria, USF finished as a top-10 performing institution among the “Pell-serving institutions,” graduating 68 percent of its Pell students within six years, compared to 67 percent for non-Pell students. Forty-one percent of its 2010 cohort was on a Pell grant.

“Since 2009, student success has been a focus of the university as we sought to implement programming, practices and policies to support students on a timely and successful path to graduation and fully prepare them for what lays beyond,” Paul Dosal, a USF vice president, said in a statement. “This student success movement has been built on our fundamental belief that all students will succeed if given the opportunity. It is very satisfying knowing our initiatives are working.”

Florida International graduated 56 percent of its Pell students, while serving a cohort with 52 percent of the students on the federal aid program.

Florida Atlantic graduated 51 percent of its Pell students, above its 49 percent graduation rate for non-Pell students. It had 39 percent Pell students in its 2010 group.

Florida A&M had the highest number of Pell students, with 72 percent in the 2010 cohort, graduating 39 percent of them in six years compared to 47 percent for non-Pell students, the study showed.

The University of Central Florida graduated 65 percent of its Pell students, although that was 6 percentage points below the non-Pell student graduation rate. Pell students represented 31 percent of its cohort.

UF (82 percent) and FSU (75 percent) had the highest graduation rates for Pell students, but each rate lagged the non-Pell students by 7 percentage points. Pell students make up less than 30 percent of the 2010 cohorts at those schools.

Florida Polytechnic University, which was not a fully operating institution during the time of the survey, was not included in the report.

The number of students on Pell grants is growing in Florida schools, with a 2.4 percent increase since the fall of 2010, according to the state university system’s Board of Governors. Some 39 percent of the undergraduates were on Pell grants in the fall of 2015, with Florida A&M and Florida International having the largest numbers.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Adam Putnam maintains fundraising edge in governor’s race

In the Republican race for governor, new financial reports show Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis continue to pursue different strategies in their quest for their party’s nomination.

Putnam, a two-term Agriculture Commissioner, raised more than $2 million in April and spent $2.4 million, including more than $1.8 million launching his first television ad, the new filings with the state Division of Elections show.

DeSantis, a three-term congressman from Palm Coast, raised $819,000 in April and spent $570,000, the state records show. DeSantis has yet to run any television advertising but is relying on frequent appearances on Fox News to connect with Republican voters.

With total contributions of $28.85 million, Putnam maintained a solid hold as the strongest fundraiser in the governor’s race, among both Republicans and Democrats.

Even with his expenditures, Putnam had approximately $19 million in cash on hand as he moved into May.

DeSantis has raised nearly $8 million and had more than $7 million in cash heading into May, the reports show.

Putnam’s largest contributions reflect his status as the Tallahassee establishment’s favored candidate.

His political committee, Florida Grown, in April received $375,000 from the business-lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida, as well as $215,000 from a political committee affiliated with the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The committee’s April haul included $100,000 from Publix Super Markets and $100,000 from William Becker, owner of Peace River Citrus Products, last month. And Putnam’s committee received $75,000 from pari-mutuel interests, including $25,000 from Patrick Rooney, president of the Palm Beach Kennel Club.

Phosphate companies contributed $50,000 to Putnam in April. He also received $25,000 from Geo Group, a private prison company, and $25,000 from St. Joe Co., a major developer.

The largest April contribution to DeSantis’ political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, was $100,000 from Ahmad Khawaja, the California-based founder of Allied Wallet, an online payment-processing company.

DeSantis’ committee also received $25,000 from a company affiliated with MCNA Dental Plans, a company that has provided dental care for Medicaid patients in Florida. The state is currently reviewing bids for a new contract that will separate dental services from the main Medicaid managed-care program.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran who announced this week he would not run for governor and endorsed Putnam, raised $49,500 for his Watchdog political committee in April, state records show.

Corcoran raised a total $6.9 million, with about $2 million left at the end of April. He has said he may use some of the money to support Republican efforts to maintain majorities in the state House and Senate.

Among Democrats, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham had the strongest fund-raising month in April, the records show. She raised more than $1 million, with a total of $7.4 million in contributions to her campaign account and Our Florida political committee. Graham had more than $4.7 million in cash in the accounts moving into May, the reports show.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, the first Democratic candidate to run TV spots, spent $1.8 million on ads in April, the latest campaign finance reports show. Levine has raised a combined total of $9 million in his official campaign account and All About Florida political committee, while also loaning $5 million — including $2.2 million in April — to his campaign.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum received $445,000 in contributions to his campaign account and political committee, Forward Florida, in April, the records show. He has raised a total of $3 million, and had $1.4 million cash on hand heading into May.

Winter Park businessman Chris King raised $115,000 in April, according to reports reflecting contributions to his campaign account and Rise and Lead political committee. He has raised a total of $3.76 million and has also loaned his campaign $825,000, including $400,000 in April.

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