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.

Property taxes likely to spur school funding fight

Another battle about using increases in local property taxes to bolster public schools will complicate upcoming state budget negotiations.

In his $87.4 billion budget proposal for 2018-2019, Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday called for a $770 million increase in funding for Florida’s kindergarten through 12th-grade education system. But nearly $7 out of every $10 of that increase would come from rising local property-tax revenue, much of it the result of increasing property values with a stronger economy.

Senate leaders support the governor’s plan, while House leaders remain firmly opposed to using the increased local property tax collections, arguing that such a move would represent a tax increase.

The projected $534 million increase in local property tax revenue includes $450 million in “required local effort” taxes and $84 million in discretionary local school taxes.

In an explanation of Scott’s budget, his office noted the school proposal does not change the required local property-tax rate, meaning “there is not a tax increase.”

“The amount of local funding provided in the (school funding formula) calculation primarily increased due to a 6.15 percent, or $117.1 billion, rise in the school taxable value that was the result of an increase in the value of Florida property,” the explanation said. “When property values rise, it’s a good thing for Florida families.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley of Fleming Island said the Senate supports Scott’s K-12 plan, including the use of increased local property tax collections.

“It’s not a tax increase. It’s just simply not,” Bradley said.

“If I were to buy a lawnmower at Home Depot for $200 in January and then buy the same lawnmower as a present for my brother four months later and it’s priced $230, there will be more taxes owed on the $230 purchase, but that’s not a tax increase,” Bradley said.

He said it’s “just the same tax rate being applied to a purchase that is a little higher than it used to be.”

But House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes, reaffirmed Wednesday the House’s strong opposition to using increased property tax collections.

“I think our position has been very clear for the last two years and it will not change,” Corcoran said. “We’re not raising taxes.”

The House prevailed in the negotiations on the current 2017-2018 budget, with the Senate agreeing to roll back the “required local effort” property tax rate to offset the increase in tax collections.

Rather than having the majority of an increase for the K-12 system come from local property tax collections, lawmakers funded most of the $455 million increase from state revenue, along with a $92 million increase in discretionary local property-tax collections.

But that meant the Legislature had to shift $364 million in state revenue, which could have been used in other areas of the budget like health care or criminal justice, to come up with a $100 per-student increase in funding.

Under Scott’s new plan, per-student funding would rise by $200, but that is based on $450 million in property taxes. If lawmakers reject using the property tax revenue, they will have to again shift more state revenue into the schools’ budget, which will be even more difficult in the coming year.

“We’re very committed in the Senate to K-12 education,” Bradley said. “And an important part of that commitment is making sure that we have the (local property tax collections). It’s not a tax increase. I agree with the governor. And that’s where we are.”

Corcoran downplayed the differences with the Senate over the next state budget, which will be debated when lawmakers begin their annual session in January.

“Where we are right now is in a good place and the likelihood we’re going to end in a good place is as strong as ever,” he said. “I think it’s a good situation.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State colleges look for place in constitution

State college leaders are advancing the idea of having their 28-school system embedded in the Florida Constitution.

The Council of Presidents, which represents the school leaders, voted unanimously Thursday to support the concept as part of the ongoing Florida Constitution Revision Commission, a panel considering constitutional changes for the 2018 ballot.

“We are the only part of the public education system that is not recognized in Florida’s Constitution at all,” said Broward College President David Armstrong, who brought up the issue at the council’s meeting in Palm Harbor.

The Florida Constitution explicitly authorizes “a high-quality system of free public schools” for the K-12 system, a pre-kindergarten system and a state university system, including its Board of Governors.

The state college presidents have been working with Sherry Plymale, a member of the Constitution Revision Commission who has filed a proposed amendment (Proposal 25) that would provide constitutional authority for the college system. The proposal would have to be approved by the commission and be endorsed by at least 60 percent of voters next year.

“There shall be a single college system comprised of all public community and state colleges,” Plymale’s proposal reads in part. “A board of trustees shall administer each individually governed public college, and the board of directors of the college system shall oversee, coordinate and provide statewide leadership for the state college system.”

Commission member Nicole Washington is sponsoring a similar state college proposal (P83).

The main difference between the proposals is that Plymale’s measure would create a new statewide “board of directors” to oversee the state college system, while Washington’s proposal would leave the system under the Board of Education, which now oversees the colleges.

“I’m grateful for that,” Armstrong said about the proposals. “We are lacking advocates right now. To have someone like her (Plymale) and hopefully others who will stand up and talk about the importance of our system, the fact that is it is not in the Constitution and that it should be, is at a minimum something that is very positive for our system.”

At their meeting, the presidents adopted a recommendation that the commission propose placing the college system into the state Constitution “in a manner that preserves local authority.”

The emphasis on local control remains a key provision for the presidents, who argue their system needs more autonomy to react quickly to changing education and local workforce needs.

“One thing I have heard many of you say frequently is that no matter what happens, local control is very important because of how different our local communities are,” said Ava Parker, president of Palm Beach State College.

The presidents’ position is also an effort to engage more in a continuing debate in Tallahassee over the state college system.

The Senate is advancing a bill (SB 540) would also create a statewide board to oversee the colleges, while modifying performance standards for the schools and putting limits on their ability to enroll baccalaureate students.

Ed Massey, president of Indian River State College, said he prefers the way the college system operates now, while acknowledging that the continued debate in Tallahassee may mean “our governance is going to change.”

“They don’t need to do that without our voice,” said Massey, who was one of several presidents who said they will have to become more engaged in the proposals pending in the Constitution Revision Commission and in the Legislature, which begins its annual session in January.

Massey cited the history of the governance of the college system, which had been under prior boards and commissions before it was placed under the Board of Education in a 2003 government reorganization.

Massey said the new debate will give colleges a chance to make a case for bringing more “sustainability and consistency” to the governance system while underscoring the “strength, purpose and stature” of the system.

“We have to help figure out how to shape that,” he said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Democrats campaign for governor as field could grow

The three top Democratic candidates for governor sat on a stage Saturday night in the Fiesta Ballroom at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort and answered more than an hour’s worth of questions on issues facing Florida.

There were few differences in the responses from former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Winter Park businessman Chris King as they addressed party activists and supporters gathered at the Florida Democratic Party’s 2017 state conference.

All three candidates supported the expansion of Medicaid and called for stronger environmental protections, including a response to climate change. They voiced support for public schools, a higher minimum wage and gay rights. And they repeatedly took shots at Gov. Rick Scott and President Donald Trump.

But a major question went unasked and unanswered: Who will join the three contenders on the political stage before the Aug. 28 Democratic primary next year?

One potential answer sat at a $10,000 dinner table in the audience.

“I’m here. I’m thinking about it,” Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan said. “(Florida Democratic Party Chairman) Steve Bittel begged me to buy a table, and I finally gave in.”

Morgan said he will decide about the governor’s race in the spring.

On Wednesday, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is expected to announce his entry into the race.

“The mayor has great respect for everybody in the race right now,” said Christian Ulvert, an adviser to Levine’s political committee who attended the Democratic gathering.

The possibility of the five Democrats vying for the nomination would make it the most crowded Democratic gubernatorial field since 1978, when Graham’s father, former Gov. Bob Graham, emerged from a primary and a then-required runoff election to win the nomination over a half-dozen rivals.

The large field brings more uncertainty and possibilities to the race, although key factors remain demographics, geography and, perhaps most important, money.

The three announced candidates have a head start and have been working to establish their identities among Democratic voters.

At the party forum, Graham talked about her election to Congress in 2014 over a Republican incumbent in a conservative-leaning North Florida district.

“I sent the Tea Party Republican packing. I won in a red year, in a red district,” Graham said. “We’re going to have a blue wave.”

Graham, a former school board attorney, is also making public education a key part of her message, accusing Republicans of turning schools over to the “education industry.”

Her name may resonate with Democratic voters who remember her father, although he was last on the ballot as a U.S. Senate incumbent in 1998. At the forum, Graham invoked his name, saying the ethics of her administration would be patterned after her father who “served 40-plus years with integrity.”

Graham is the only woman in the race, which could be a factor with women voters representing 58 percent of the Democratic electorate in the 2016 presidential primary.

In responding to forum questions, Gillum used his experience as a Tallahassee city commissioner and mayor to talk about specific programs aimed at helping juveniles stay out of the criminal justice system, establishing solar-energy programs and attracting higher-paying jobs.

Gillum, the youngest candidate in the field at 36, is the most charismatic speaker, talking about his rise over “intergenerational poverty” to earn a college degree and embark on career in public service.

He picked up an endorsement at the party conference from Julian Castro, a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a leading national Democratic Hispanic leader.

But Gillum has been dogged by an ongoing FBI investigation into the city of Tallahassee government. Although he has said he is not a target of the probe, it remains a negative factor until it is resolved. It has hurt Gillum’s fundraising, where he trails the field.

Gillum is the only African-American candidate in the race, with black voters representing 27 percent of the Democratic presidential primary electorate last year.

Gillum and Graham both call Tallahassee their hometown, forcing them to share a limited geographic base.

King, a political novice, comes from the politically pivotal I-4 corridor, but his challenge will be raising his profile among Democratic voters. He has not been active in state or local politics, with former Orlando-area Congressman Alan Grayson saying the first time he met King was at Saturday’s forum.

King talked about his outsider status as an asset.

“We have had two decades of losing gubernatorial elections. I argue that we have got to do something different,” King said. “We need a fresh voice, a fresh face, a communicator. We need somebody who can win.”

King said he will bring his experience as an entrepreneur and developer of affordable-housing projects to his administration. He said Florida, which he characterized as being “at the back of pack” in major economic indicators, needs to do more to improve the economy.

He promised to make state and community colleges free for Florida students, saying increasing education levels of Floridians is a key to a better economy.

An area of concern for Democratic leaders is the relatively lackluster fundraising thus far by the announced candidates.

Graham led the field with about $2.7 million in available cash through Sept. 30 in her campaign account and a closely tied political committee, according to the state Division of Elections, with King holding about $1.8 million.

But that is dwarfed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the leading Republican candidate for governor, who had raised nearly $20 million in the same period for his campaign and a political committee, with about $14 million in cash on hand.

Putnam’s financial advantage may be reduced by the expectation he could face three major opponents in the GOP’s Aug. 28 primary.

If Levine enters the race, he will become the Democrats’ leading fundraiser. His political committee had raised $4.77 million through Sept. 30, with most of it unspent.

Levine, a successful businessman before he ran for Miami Beach mayor, has a net worth in excess of $100 million, said Ulvert, raising the possibility he could self-fund a portion of the race.

Levine could also have a geographic advantage as the only candidate from densely populated Southeast Florida, where a third of the 4.8 million Florida Democrats live.

Money is not an issue for Morgan, who used part of his wealth to launch and pass a ballot initiative last year to broadly legalize medical marijuana. And unlike the other candidates, Morgan has already established a statewide presence through his medical- marijuana advocacy and ubiquitous television advertising for his Morgan & Morgan law firm.

Morgan is not rushing his political decision. He said his immediate priority will be attending the Breeders’ Cup races next weekend at the Del Mar Racetrack near San Diego, where he has a thoroughbred in contention.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Democrats look for momentum going into 2018 elections

Buoyed by a win in a special election for a state Senate seat last month, Florida Democrats are using a three-day party conference to prepare plans for the critical 2018 election year when they hope to retain a U.S. Senate seat and reclaim the governor’s mansion.

“Winning is so good. Let’s get used to it,” Stephen Bittel, chairman of the state party, told delegates and activists in a Saturday afternoon meeting at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort.

Sen. Annette Taddeo‘s Sept. 26 victory in a special election for Miami-Dade County’s Senate District 40, which was previously held by a Republican, is being taken as a sign by Democrats that they can compete in a non-presidential election year when Democratic turnout has historically lagged.

Former state Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Broward County Democrat who is running for state chief financial officer, said the Senate win has helped counter some of the traditional mid-term “apathy” the party has faced in past elections.

“The Taddeo race for the first time since I have been in Florida demonstrated enthusiasm in the midterms,” Ring said.

One of the factors in the race was the ability of Democrats to tie Taddeo’s Republican opponent, former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, to President Donald Trump. And while cautioning the 2018 general election is still a year away, Democrats say Trump may be a motivating factor for their party.

“Trump, plus 20 years of Republican control of this state,” said former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink about what factors could make next year a “wave election” in favor of Democrats.

“We’re not addressing transportation issues. We’re not addressing public education issues. Look at where we are on environmental issues. Our state could be so much better off,” said Sink, who narrowly lost the 2010 governor’s race to Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

Sink, who helped found the Ruth’s List organization that recruits women to run for local and state offices in Florida, said she is finding more highly qualified candidates willing to challenge Republicans, pointing to candidates ready to run against GOP incumbents in congressional districts in the Daytona Beach and Sarasota areas.

“We’re optimistic,” Sink said.

Ring, who is the most visible Democrat running for a state Cabinet seat, said it is too early to say if the majority of next year’s electorate will tilt toward Democrats.

“We know the liberal Democratic base is engaged like never before. We know the Trump supporters aren’t going to change their minds. So what is the other 80 percent going to do?” he said. “They’re still disengaged.”

But he said if Republicans remain unable to pass major legislation in Washington, D.C., it could turn the election in the Democrats’ favor. “But I’m not here to predict 12 months out,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who addressed the conference in a luncheon speech, cautioned party activists that they have to do more than just oppose Trump’s policies. Nelson is the only current statewide elected Democrat.

“It is our responsibility not just to criticize them, not just to criticize the president,” Nelson said. “It’s our responsibility, not only as Democrats but as Americans, to do what we can to right the ship.”

Asked about a potential challenge from Scott for the U.S. Senate seat, Nelson said he is taking nothing for granted.

“I approach every race like it’s going to be the toughest,” he said, adding that he is not ready to embrace the theory that an anti-Trump wave will help Democrats next year. “Anything can happen in that time.”

The defense of Nelson’s seat is one of the many challenges facing the party next year.

The governor’s race, which the Democrats have not won since 1994, remains muddled, with three major announced candidates but with more expected to join the race.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum was the most visible candidate for much of Saturday, talking to delegates and attending meetings. He was scheduled to be joined by former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee and Winter Park developer Chris King in an evening forum.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is expected to join the governor’s race next week, while Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan remains another potential candidate who may not make a decision until next year.

Another challenge for the Democrats is a lack of prominent candidates, other than Ring, for the three open state Cabinet seats for attorney general, agriculture commissioner and chief financial officer.

“I think there is impatience, which there always is with that inside-baseball crowd. But we’ve got a year to go,” Ring said, noting recent talk about state Rep. Sean Shaw possibly running for attorney general.

The Taddeo victory was an indicator that Democrats could work to further reduce the Republican majority in the state Senate, where the GOP holds 24 of the 40 seats. But that effort hit a setback, at least temporarily, when the next leader of the Senate Democrats, Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, abruptly resigned his seat Friday after apologizing for having an affair with a lobbyist.

Democrats had been talking about making a serious bid for a half-dozen Senate seats next year, along with defending Taddeo’s seat. But former state Sen. Steve Geller, who is now a Broward County commissioner, said that is unrealistic without an influx of national money in the state races, where Republicans have a major financial edge.

“We’re going to have to concentrate on two or three seats unless we get national money,” Geller said.

But state party leaders are working to draw national attention to even local contests and state legislative races, making the pitch it will help in future presidential campaigns.

“We have worked hard to make sure the races and the wins that we have here in our state are being recognized throughout the country,” Sally Boynton Brown, president of the Florida Democratic Party, told the delegates.

She said victories like Taddeo’s Senate win help the party convince national donors that Florida is not “too big, too hard, too expensive” for the Democrats.

“We’re proving them wrong,” she said.

Bill Galvano brings policy skills to top Senate post

Sen. Bill Galvano, a 51-year-old lawyer from Bradenton, will be designated Tuesday by Senate Republicans as the next president of the Florida Senate.

The Republican lawmaker will lead the 40-member Senate for two years after the November 2018 general elections, assuming the Republicans hold their majority — now at a 24-16 margin — in the chamber.

Over the course of his 13-year legislative career in the House and Senate, Galvano has handled complex issues, including the investigation of a House speaker, a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe and, most recently, a major higher-education initiative.

“It’s not accidental that I entrusted one of my top legislative priorities to him,” said Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, referring to Galvano’s handling of the Senate’s higher-education legislation.

Negron met Galvano when he was assigned to help the Manatee County lawmaker in his first campaign for the House in 2002. They had a common background as lawyers from medium-sized communities.

“He approaches legislative issues like you prepare for a trial,” said Negron, who has been Galvano’s Tallahassee roommate for about nine years.

Negron said Galvano is also strong in building long-term relationships in Tallahassee, which is important in passing legislation as well as rising in the legislative leadership.

“Bill is unique in that he is equally adept in the policy part of the political process as well as the social component,” Negron said.

Earlier in his legislative career, Galvano focused on health care, chairing a House committee. He later became the chamber’s Rules Committee chairman and then led a special committee investigating the conduct of House Speaker Ray Sansom, who resigned.

In his last year in the House, Galvano was one of the key architects of a major gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe in 2010.

After brief hiatus from the Legislature, Galvano won election to the Senate, where President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, tapped him to oversee the $20-billion-plus public-school budget. It was Galvano’s first foray as a budget leader.

In 2015, Galvano led the Senate effort to resolve a redistricting challenge to the 40 Senate seats, after a court ruled the 2012 redistricting map had violated the state Constitution.

During Negron’s presidency, Galvano has led the chamber’s higher-education budget panel and is the sponsor of a Senate bill (SB 4) this year that seeks to expand and make permanent changes to Florida’s Bright Futures merit scholarship program.

“It’s made my career more interesting to be able to focus on these areas,” Galvano said in an interview. “And I think it will help give me some depth going forward.”

Major influences in Galvano’s life were his parents, Phil and Betty Galvano.

Galvano’s father, the son of Sicilian immigrants, was a self-made man who became one of the nation’s top golf professionals, claiming a list of clients that included celebrities like Johnny Carson and Perry Como.

Galvano said his father was also a strong believer in self-learning and education. In his honor, Galvano hosts an annual golf tournament each spring and has raised more than $3 million for Manatee County schools.

But Galvano said it was his 82-year-old mother, Betty, who helped guide him into a career of law and politics. He said she has always had an active civic life, evidenced recently when Galvano called her to ask how she was doing during Hurricane Irma and found out she was on her way to Moore Haven as a Red Cross volunteer.

“I really got involved in a lot of different issues through her and it piqued my interest in politics at a young age,” Galvano said.

Galvano’s wife, Julie, is an administrator at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton. The couple are parents of two sons and a 13-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, who is a budding actress and singer. Jacqueline, who keeps up with classes through the Florida Virtual School, recently completed a national tour in the musical “Annie.”

Asked about his legislative priorities as the next Senate leader, Galvano said he is looking to the Senate membership to develop ideas reflecting the scope and diversity of the nation’s third-largest state.

“I want to make sure my message is one of recognizing that everyone can contribute to the process, the empowerment of the members,” Galvano said about his agenda. “And most of all to be a facilitator of their ideas and their opportunities.”

Galvano said he knows the state will face budget challenges in the next few years, including dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

He also said he wants to help the state’s citrus industry, which lost crops in the hurricane and has a long-term challenge from citrus greening disease.

Galvano said he would also like to encourage more international trade and continue efforts to diversify the state’s economy, with the aim of creating more homegrown businesses rather than trying to attract businesses from outside the state.

Miami Lakes Republican Rep. Jose Oliva, who was recently designated by the House Republicans as their next speaker, and Galvano will preside over the Legislature in the 2019 and 2020 regular sessions.

Galvano said while he and Oliva may not always agree, they have already established a solid working relationship.

“I think whether it’s known or not, we have been able to resolve and work together on issues far more often than not,” Galvano said. “I don’t perceive that his and mine relationship will be one steeped in gamesmanship, but more based on how we as one team get things accomplished.”

Galvano also said since he began working with Oliva, whose family owns a cigar company, they have found another area of agreement.

“I have to say his cigars are the best I’ve had,” Galvano said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State targets pharmaceutical company in stock case

In a rare move, Florida is considering taking on a large pharmaceutical company, alleging the state’s pension fund lost some $127 million in stock value because of federal security violations by the company.

The State Board of Administration, which includes Gov. Rick Scott and two Cabinet members, will decide next month whether to hire a New York-based law firm to pursue a “direct action” case against Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc., rather than joining a class-action lawsuit against the company.

Valeant has been accused of violating federal securities regulations by marking up drug prices and then selling the drugs through a pharmacy network, without disclosing the full scope of the transactions to the stockholders.

“In my view, if the SBA files a direct action, the SBA may be able to enhance its recovery above the class action recovery by double-digit millions of dollars,” Ash Williams, head of the State Board of Administration, said in a memorandum to Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who also serve on the board.

Williams had recommended that the State Board of Administration hire the firm Bernstein Litowitz Berger and Grossmann to handle the Valeant lawsuit, which would be filed in federal court in New Jersey, where the company has its U.S. headquarters.

But Bondi on Tuesday asked for the decision to be delayed until next month while she reviews law firms that could handle the case. She said she did not disagree with the decision to file the suit but wanted to look at potential law firms “in a little more detail.”

In a report to the state, Bernstein Litowitz said Florida’s $154 billion pension fund “incurred significant damages as a result of the fraudulent misrepresentations at Valeant.” The law firm identified $127 million in “potential recoverable damages,” based on Valeant stock transactions between January 2013 and August 2016.

In a review of records at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the law firm said the Florida losses were “among the largest of any public fund investor.”

About $17 million of the Valeant transactions were on the Canadian stock exchange, which is not expected to be the focus of the lawsuit.

In an indication of how much Florida might recover from the litigation, Bernstein Litowitz said it recovered 37.5 percent of investors’ estimated damages in a securities lawsuit against the Cendant Corp. and 18.5 percent of investors’ claims against the Biovail Corp.

Both were class-action lawsuits and Bernstein Litowitz noted it “has achieved substantially higher recovery percentages when selectively representing prominent institutional investors (including the SBA) in direct actions.”

Williams said the state “very rarely” opts out of class-action lawsuits in favor of direct action claims. But he said the state pension fund has a clear set of guidelines that allows for direct claims, including cases of “egregious” behavior and where Florida wants to “make a statement for the benefit of the markets, that we don’t like this kind of thing and we’re not going to take it.”

In its report, Bernstein Litowitz said Florida’s lawsuit would allow the state to hold Valeant accountable for losses and also provide a forum “to insist on meaningful corporate governance reforms as an important component of any direct resolution with the company.”

“Given Valeant’s prominence in the pharmaceutical industry and the impact its practices have had on a strained American healthcare system, any corporate reforms achieved through this matter should have a lasting and meaningful impact,” the law firm said.

Valeant is facing numerous lawsuits, including an $80 billion claim filed in August by Lord Abbett & Co., a mutual fund company.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State tries to scuttle matching-gift case

The state is asking a Leon County circuit judge to dismiss a case alleging the state has failed to match $460 million in private donations to universities and state colleges that were made under Florida’s matching-gift laws.

University of Florida graduates and Florida State University donors filed separate class-action lawsuits, which were consolidated, seeking to force the state to come up with $600 million in matching funds for the gifts.

In a motion filed Wednesday, lawyers for the state said the matching-gift laws are subject to annual budget decisions by the Legislature and it would violate the constitutional separation of powers if the judiciary ordered lawmakers to spend the money.

“As with all other funding programs the Legislature has created, the statutes create programs but they do not appropriate any state funds for those programs; the programs are subject to future appropriations,” the motion said.

Noting the “firm separation” of constitutional authority among the legislative, executive and judicial branches, the motion added: “Because plaintiffs’ requested relief would violate the separation of powers, it cannot be granted.”

The state’s motion also attacked an alternate request for relief that asks the court to issue an order requiring the executive branch, including the governor, to make a request to the Legislature for the matching funds.

“But they lack standing to pursue this alternate relief as it cannot remedy any harm they allegedly have suffered; a budget request, after all, is only a request,” the motion said.

University of Florida alumni Ryan and Alexis Geffin filed a lawsuit in July, alleging their undergraduate education was harmed because matching funds weren’t provided for construction projects at the school.

The programs cited by the lawsuit included two construction-related funds, the Alec P. Courtelis University Facility Enhancement Challenge Grant Program and the Florida College System Institution Capital Facilities Matching Program, as well as the Dr. Philip Benjamin Matching Grant Program and the University Major Gifts Program.

A second lawsuit was filed by two Florida State University law-school graduates, Tommy Warren, a former FSU football player, and his wife, Kathleen Villacorta. The suit cited their $100,000 donation to the FSU law school for a scholarship fund that was never matched by the state and their $100,000 donation for a scholarship program for students studying marine conservation that was also never matched by the state.

Under a 2011 law, the programs cannot be restarted until a backlog of $200 million in donations for the Courtelis program as well as the other three matching-grant programs have been matched.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

More money proposed for public schools, colleges

The Florida Board of Education approved a 2018-2019 budget request Wednesday that includes a $200 per-student boost in the K-12 system, increased funding for the 28 state colleges and construction money for public schools, colleges and universities.

The board met in a conference call, with Chairwoman Marva Johnson and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart saying their focus remains on helping Floridians recover from Hurricane Irma.

“It certainly was an unprecedented storm, and those hit hardest will need our ongoing support,” Stewart said, noting many schools served as storm shelters and many districts are in the process of reopening schools.

With the hurricane noted, the board, without debate, approved the budget request, which will be considered when the 2018 legislative session begins in January.

The largest request involves operating funds for the public-school system’s 67 districts.

The $21.4 billion request reflects a $770 million increase in total funding, with the bulk of the increase, $534 million, coming from local property taxes.

The increase would bring funding to $7,497 for each K-12 student, or a $200 increase over the current funding level.

It takes into account a 27,184 increase in the K-12 student population, which would go up less than 1 percent to 2.86 million students next academic year.

The K-12 request also includes $140 million for the new “schools of hope” program, which distributes funding to help students in low-performing public schools and provides financial incentives for the creation of nearby charter schools.

The budget request also includes $1.24 billion in operating funds, a 2.64 percent increase, for the 28 state colleges. The proposal would increase state performance funding for the schools to $60 million, up from the current $30 million.

The board’s budget request also supports the continued expansion of merit- and need-based financial aid for students attending state colleges, universities and other post-secondary programs.

It includes $421 million for the merit-based Bright Futures scholarships, with the program continuing to cover full tuition and fees for about 47,000 students who qualify as “academic scholars,” the top award level. It also would provide them with $300 each for books during the fall and spring semesters and allow the scholarships to be used for summer classes.

The request has $269 million for the state’s largest need-based aid program, known as “student assistance grants,” which would help about 235,000 students from lower-income families. The awards would average $1,147, with a maximum award up to $2,610.

The board is asking for $185 million in facility maintenance and renovation funding. Public schools and charter schools would each receive $50 million, while state colleges would get $38 million and universities $48.6 million under the proposal.

The request includes $49 million for state-college construction projects under the Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, program. Universities would receive $74 million for PECO projects.

The request, which is based on average allocations over the last five years, is substantially less than what the colleges and universities received this year in the PECO program. Colleges had $74 million for PECO projects, while universities had $146 million.

The board’s budget request also includes $31.4 million for “special” K-12 construction projects in Taylor, Liberty and Jackson counties.

Republished with permission the News Service of Florida.

Billionaire blasts Donald Trump ‘dreamer’ decision

A prominent Republican fund-raiser turned critic of President Donald Trump said Thursday it would be a huge economic mistake not to let young undocumented immigrants, called “Dreamers,” remain in the United States.

“There is something wrong in separating families,” Miguel “Mike” Fernandez said, after delivering a speech to students and faculty at Florida A&M University. “That is a universal wrong. We are doing that in DACA.”

DACA is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows children brought to the country by their undocumented-immigrant parents to remain in the U.S. Former President Barack Obama put the program in place by executive order.

But the Trump administration this week rescinded the order, with an effective date of six months, giving Congress time to enact its own version of a DACA plan.

The Cuban-born Fernandez, who is a billionaire Miami businessman, supported Jeb Bush in last year’s presidential primary, but broke with his party over Trump’s anti-immigration stances and spent some $3 million in a campaign against Trump.

“If the president talks about Mexicans, murderers, criminals, rapists and so on, these (the Dreamers) are the very best. These are the opposite,” Fernandez said. “These are the students who are working hard. They are going to be tomorrow’s taxpayers.”

Fernandez, 65, who has created a number of health-care companies and later sold them, said Florida has more than 32,000 immigrants protected under DACA, and he estimates they will pay $6.7 billion in taxes over their lifetimes.

“It’s an economic issue,” he said. “Throw them out?”

Fernandez’s own story as a Cuban exile who came to the U.S. as a 12-year-old with his family was the focus of his speech to the FAMU students. Despite his enormous economic success, Fernandez repeatedly emphasized that he did not believe he had any great talents.

“I’m as average as they come,” he said.

He also talked about the many setbacks in his life, including business failures, three failed marriages, two heart attacks and cancer.

“You have to adjust,” Fernandez said. “There is not a linear path to success. Actually, I guarantee you that failure is a necessary step towards your success. If you haven’t failed, you haven’t pushed yourself hard enough.”

Fernandez distributed 700 copies of his autobiography, “Humbled by the Journey,” and took time after the speech to sign dozens of copies and talk to individual students.

Fernandez’s candor was also on display. Earlier in the day, he sent an email to the Tampa Bay Times calling state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, who supports the elimination of DACA, a “bully” and an “intellectual midget.”

“They are just facts,” Fernandez said when asked about the comments. “That’s my opinion of the guy.”

Fernandez, who said he has given about $30 million to Republican causes over the last 15 years, also expressed “disappointment” in Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, although he had given $100,000 to help Putnam’s Republican gubernatorial campaign.

“I think that we lack in this country people who speak and stand on their backbone,” Fernandez said.

“He’s a guy who was fairly normal in his position until he is faced with an opponent who is more to the right. He feels he has to move to the right,” Fernandez said. “I move to where I am, and that’s who I respect.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Expansion of e-books could equate to student savings

Florida universities are taking the first steps toward expanding the use of electronic textbooks and other material, hoping to bring significant savings to students who spend hundreds of dollars each semester on traditional textbooks.

The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, approved a 2018-19 budget request this week that includes a $656,000 program to encourage the greater use of so-called “eTexts” and other open educational resources in lieu of the standard textbooks.

It may take some time to replicate the experience of the University of Indiana, a leader in the use of eTexts, with IU reporting last spring that its students saved an estimated $3.5 million in the 2016-17 academic year by using eTexts in place of textbooks.

But Joseph Glover, provost at the University of Florida, who is part of a group coordinating innovation and online programs among the universities, said the expanded use of eTexts and other open-source material “is a great opportunity for really substantial savings for our students.”

Glover said the Indiana experience “demonstrates that with a solid program and a sustained effort promoting the adoption, that over the course of a decade, you are going to end up saving the students literally millions of dollars per year.”

In a survey of 22,000 students at Florida’s 12 universities and 28 state colleges, the Florida Virtual Campus reported 53 percent of the students spent more than $300 in the spring 2016 semester on textbooks, with about 18 percent reporting they spent more than $500.

Faced with those costs, students have found other ways to deal with the financial burden, including buying used textbooks and renting textbooks.

And Jennifer Smith, director of the UF Office of Faculty Development and Teaching Excellence, said individual universities have already embarked on pilot programs aimed at cutting textbook costs.

At UF, she said the school negotiated a 43 percent discount off book publishers’ list prices for textbooks used in 79 freshman-level courses last fall. The discount saved the students an estimated $941,000, Smith said.

At Florida State University, an “alternative textbook” program will save students some $41,000 over the course of this academic year, Smith said.

“When we can populate this across the entire (system) and expand these programs, I think we will see significant savings with actually a relatively low outlay of costs,” Smith told the BOG’s Innovation and Online Committee at a meeting in Gainesville Wednesday.

The budget proposal would set aside $656,000 to create a “catalog” where professors and other instructors, as they are developing their courses, will find open-source material as well as eTexts where lower prices have been negotiated with the publishers, Glover said.

He also said a review process will be set up to assure the materials in the catalog are “high quality” and meet the universities’ educational standards.

“This is important because a problem in the past has been that resources available in the system repository have been of a mixed quality, which the faculty found frustrating and which caused them not to use it as much,” Glover said.

Glover said students will have the option of using the eTexts and other material or sticking with their traditional textbooks. But he said one advantage of the electronic material is that a system will be set up where students will pay for the access and have the eTexts available on the first day of their classes.

He also said the universities were looking a providing some type of “financial incentive” for instructors to use the alternative textbooks, but nothing has been finalized.

Ed Morton, a Board of Governors member, said he supported the efforts to decrease textbooks costs for the students.

“The cost of textbooks is a barrier for our students just like room and board,” Morton said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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