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.

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.

Adam Putnam, Ron DeSantis tout conservative positions

In their first joint appearance of the campaign, the two leading Republican candidates for governor Saturday night outlined a series of conservative stances on abortion, gun rights and education

There were few differences between Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who each took questions in separate half-hour sessions before the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative advocacy group that opposes abortion and gay marriage.

“Our party would be in a pretty bad place if there were broad disagreements in front of the Florida Family Policy Council,” said Putnam, a two-term member of the state Cabinet and a former congressman and state lawmaker.

Both candidates oppose abortion, with Putnam telling the council members that he would support a “heartbeat bill,” which would prohibit doctors from performing abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Iowa’s Republican governor signed such a bill Friday, setting up a legal fight that supporters hope could lead to a test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

“If the heartbeat bill gets to my desk, I will sign it,” Putnam said, recounting listening to the heartbeat of one of his four children before birth. “That life is real. It should be protected. It should be defended.”

The Florida Democratic Party issued a statement late Saturday that blasted Putnam on the abortion issue, describing him as an “anti-choice extremist.”

“Instead of laying out a positive vision to move Florida forward, Putnam is putting forward an extreme, far-right agenda that would hurt women’s health and undermine working families,” Democratic Party spokesman Kevin Donohoe said.

DeSantis, a three-term congressman from Palm Coast, was not asked directly about abortion legislation, but he is a co-sponsor of a bill that would provide protections for fetuses “born alive” during abortion procedures. He recounted seeing an ultrasound of his son, who was born this year, calling it “a powerful example of science reinforcing something that I believe.”

Putnam and DeSantis are expected to face each other in the Aug. 28 Republican primary for governor. Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes is also considering the race, although he has not announced his decision.

Issues addressed during Saturday night’s event could be important as the GOP candidates try to appeal to conservative primary voters.

Asked about the state’s response to the mass shooting at Broward County’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, DeSantis said he would have approached a school-safety bill, which included new restrictions on gun sales, “differently because I think it scapegoated law-abiding citizens in terms of their Second Amendment rights.”

DeSantis said the system failed at the local and federal levels to protect the 17 students and staff killed and wounded in the Valentine’s Day shooting.

If he were governor, DeSantis said he would have removed the Broward County sheriff, and he said FBI members who received two calls about the alleged shooter prior to the incident and “didn’t do anything” should be fired.

“They have not been fired. How do you have no accountability and expect to get good results?” he said.

The bill, which the Republican-dominated Legislature and GOP Gov. Rick Scott approved, includes increasing the minimum age for buying rifles and other long guns to 21. The National Rifle Association has filed a federal lawsuit challenging that restriction.

Although giving credit to Scott and lawmakers for “quickly moving” on the school tragedy, Putnam questioned how a 20-year-old could get sent on an overseas military operation “but can’t go to a sporting goods store and buy a shotgun.”

Both DeSantis and Putnam said the state needs to do more to keep weapons away from people with mental illnesses and to improve the security of school campuses.

Both candidates were asked by Frank Luntz, a Fox News analyst who moderated the event, about legislative battles over the public bathrooms that can be used by transgender people. The issue centers on whether transgender people should be required to use bathrooms that correspond to their sex at birth or whether they can use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

“As a father, I am not going to sign a bill that lets men into my daughters’ restrooms,” said Putnam, the father of three daughters.

DeSantis said he would oppose efforts to have “unmarked” bathrooms.

“That’s a totally inappropriate use of government to do that,” he said. “Getting into the bathroom wars, I don’t think that is a good use of our time.”

On education policy, Putnam said he would emphasize the importance of vocational and technical training for high school graduates in addition to students getting four-year college degrees.

He also said he would create an “ombudsman” position in the state Department of Education to help families with children who are home-schooled or who are looking to use other education opportunities outside the standard public-school system.

DeSantis said he would make civics education a top priority in his administration. Florida voters will consider a state constitutional amendment in November that would require a law to “promote civic literacy” in the public schools.

DeSantis also praised Florida’s school-choice programs, including scholarships that allow students with disabilities to obtain special services or to attend private schools. He said he would expand the alternative school programs by providing similar scholarship accounts for low-income students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.

On other topics, Putnam said he would create an “Office of Faith-Based and Community-Based Initiatives” in the governor’s office to encourage a volunteer network that can help the state in various activities, including responding to hurricanes.

DeSantis talked about his relationship with President Donald Trump, who has praised his gubernatorial bid, and support for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He said he will attend the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, an event that Scott also plans to attend.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

New tax law raises questions for state ‘piggyback’

Kelli Stargel

Florida lawmakers are dealing with the consequences of the new federal tax law, which sharply cuts the amount of taxes paid by corporations.

Lawmakers are trying to understand the impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which took effect Jan. 1 and cut the federal tax rate paid by major corporations and businesses from 35 percent to 21 percent. It also changed deductions and other accounting methods that can alter business’ tax liabilities.

Since Florida’s corporate income tax, which is 5.5 percent, is based on federal tax liability, changes in federal law can affect the amount of tax revenue the state collects from businesses. Last year, Florida collected nearly $2.2 billion in corporate taxes, making it one of the state’s most significant revenue sources, outside of the sales tax.

Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, is sponsoring an annual bill (SB 502) that conforms or “piggybacks” Florida’s corporate tax law with the federal tax code, adopting or modifying changes made at the federal level.

But the piggyback bill, which is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, has taken on much greater significance this year because of the sweeping nature of the federal tax changes. It also must accommodate the new Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which was signed into law this month and also includes some changes in federal tax law.

“This is a very complex issue for our corporations who look to this bill each year to try to clarify how they’re going to file their corporate income tax,” Stargel said before her subcommittee unanimously approved the piggyback bill last week.

“We’re trying to recognize that right now it’s just early for everybody, so we’re trying to give some accommodation to the parts that are the most significant swings from maybe what it was last year,” Stargel said.

State officials, businesses and others are waiting for clarification from the federal government and the Internal Revenue Service on how many aspects of the new tax law will be applied.

In fact, the uncertainty has left state analysts unable to say exactly what the fiscal impact of the piggyback bill could be on state revenue, although the assumption is it could have an undetermined “negative” impact through the end of this budget year and the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. In the long term, it is anticipated to have a more positive impact.

To offset the initial negative impact of the federal law, Stargel’s piggyback bill is “decoupled” from the new federal tax code on several key provisions, including a measure in the federal law that allows corporations to immediately deduct the cost of new equipment and other capital.

Under Stargel’s bill, Florida corporations would have to spread the “federal bonus depreciation” over seven years and lessen its impact on the state tax collections, rather than trying to claim it immediately.

The decoupling is a routine occurrence for Florida and other states, according to a Jan. 29 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures on the new federal tax law.

“The goal is to incentivize businesses to invest more and grow the economy, but states that conform would likely see a reduction in revenues in the short term,” the legislative policy group said about the depreciation measure. “Most states have already decoupled or modified the existing federal bonus depreciation provisions.”

But while some federal tax law changes could reduce state revenue, Florida officials and national analysts also say other provisions could increase tax collections for the states.

One issue still being analyzed is how state tax collections will be impacted as corporations bring back, or “repatriate,” overseas cash and assets to the United States.

“This would raise revenue for the states in the short run as businesses bring back monies held overseas, but tax experts seem divided on whether this will be a small amount or a windfall,” the NCSL report said.

In acknowledging the uncertainty and complexity of the federal tax changes, Stargel’s bill also would direct the state Department of Revenue to create a workgroup to continue to analyze the revamped tax code and offer recommendations.

The workgroup would begin offering periodic updates in May, with a final report to state lawmakers and the governor by next Feb. 1, about a month before the start of the 2019 legislative session.

Stargel said the work group will provide “the opportunity to give a little bit of time for us to figure out what this is doing and report back.”

Constitution panel could look for clemency fix

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission may wade into the state’s process for restoring voting rights of ex-felons, after a federal judge ruled the current clemency process is unconstitutional.

Members of the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee unanimously agreed Friday to explore ways to consider the issue, either through additional committee meetings or by amending a proposal when the full commission meets in March.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker found the current process – in which ex-felons must wait years to have their clemency cases considered and only a small number are successful in getting rights restored – to be arbitrary and unconstitutional. He also asked the state and lawyers who challenged the system to file plans to resolve the problem by Feb. 12.

“I don’t know if there is anything we can do, should do, where we would go from here, et cetera,” said Commissioner Hank Coxe, a Jacksonville lawyer who heads the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee. “But we’re here, it just happened and so we have it.”

Commissioner Sherry Plymale of Palm City said she and other members of the committee have an understanding of the problems in the current system, after they participated in an in-depth review of the clemency process.

“We were unhappy particularly with the number of people that are in the queue, which was thousands,” Plymale said. “I felt all along that we needed to find an opportunity to work on this.”

As of Oct. 1, the state had a backlog of 10,377 cases in which ex-felons are seeking to have civil rights restored, including the right to vote, according to commission analysts.

In Walker’s order, the federal judge noted that 154,000 Floridians had their rights restored under former Gov. Charlie Crist, who set up a process in which cases could be reviewed by the state parole commission.

But Gov. Rick Scott changed that policy after he took office in 2011, leaving the rights-restoration decisions up to him and the three members of the state Cabinet, although the governor has sole power to reject any application.

Since that time, only 3,000 applications have been granted, with Walker noting the process has resulted in nearly 1.7 million Floridians being denied the right to vote, including more than one out of every five voting-age African-American residents.

“I do think we owe it to an awful lot of people in Florida to have this process work a lot better than it does,” Plymale said. “Even if they don’t want to restore rights, OK. But they’re not even getting a hearing, which is really not fair.”

Former Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who is a member of the ethics and election panel, expressed regret that lawmakers did not address the issue during his 10 years in the Legislature.

“We didn’t do what perhaps we could or should have done if we had known then what we know now,” Gaetz said. “It’s obvious that the clemency process in our state is not only broken but it’s scandalously broken.”

The commission considered several proposals aimed at automatically restoring voting rights for ex-felons. But those proposals were withdrawn when the political committee Floridians for a Fair Democracy obtained enough petition signatures to place an initiative, known as Amendment 4, on the fall ballot. That amendment would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, excluding those convicted for murder or sexual offenses.

As commissioners debated the ex-felon proposals, several members raised the possibility of “ballot confusion” if the commission placed a measure on the 2018 general election ballot in addition to Amendment 4.

Coxe, the chairman of the ethics and elections panel, said if the commission now takes up a proposal, he expects it to be focused on the clemency process rather than on the automatic restoration of voting rights.

“I’m not concerned about ballot confusion if one deals with clemency and it clearly does,” Coxe said.

Gaetz said he expects Amendment 4 to fail to gain the required 60 percent support from voters because it is “too broad.” While it excludes murderers and sex offenders, it would automatically restore rights to other felons who have committed serious crimes, such as kidnapping or carjacking.

He said he would not like to see competing proposals on the ballot, “but I think that we should not just give up on the opportunity to fix the clemency process even if we can’t fix the broader issue because of the way it is drawn so expansively.”

The commission, which meets every 20 years, has the unique ability to place constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot. Ballot measures must be supported by at least 60 percent of voters to be enacted.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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