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Weekly Roundup: A Deluge of Planning as the Rains Keep Coming

July 5, 2013 - 6:00pm

During a week that seemed almost as notable in Tallahassee for its monsoon-like conditions as for the Fourth of July celebrations, most of the attention seemed focused on planning.

Education Commissioner Tony Bennett began planning for how to handle the fallout from a slew of changes to the state's accountability system that could hold school grades down. The state passed a key milestone in its planning for future gambling policies by receiving a study on gaming. And a Panhandle representative abruptly dropped his plans to run for a Senate seat in 2016.

Elsewhere, the week was largely quiet, except for the odd Supreme Court ruling and a challenge to state labor practices by the union for corrections workers. As the first half of 2013 began fading into the rearview mirror, most people already seemed to be looking at the second half and planning.


Perhaps the most surprising news of the week came Monday, when Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, said he was bowing out of the race for a seat held by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who's required to leave the Legislature due to term limits in 2016.

Patronis was the first candidate to file for the 2016 race in Senate District 1, but also faced a potentially bruising primary battle against the incumbent's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. With Patronis leaving the race, Matt Gaetz becomes the uncontested early favorite to keep the district, which includes all or parts of six counties, in family hands.

The race between Patronis and Gaetz, who didn't officially open an account for the race until May, had provided blog and twitter fodder for months. Some observers even saw the outlines of the race when Patronis and Gaetz clashed on the House floor or voted differently on legislation.

But Patronis said politics did not play a role in the discussion.

"I have a strong desire to continue to serve the people of Northwest Florida another eight years in the state Senate,'' Patronis said in a prepared statement. "However, an overwhelming part of me has come to realize it is not wha is best for me and my family at this time in our lives. So I have decided I will no longer be a candidate for state Senate."

The 41-year-old lawmaker, who will leave the House due to term limits next year, did not close the door on a future campaign.

"I am not stepping away from community service, and I have not ruled out a future run for public office,'' Patronis said. "For now, I have decided this is not the right time to run, and I'mlooking forward to finishing strong during my last year in the Florida House of Representatives."


As news of Patronis' decision was beginning to filter out, Education Commissioner Tony Bennett was trying to avoid the second botched roll-out in two years of the state's report cards on individual schools. He met with five superintendents, as well as a researcher and a couple of Department of Education officials, to brainstorm ways of minimizing confusion about the school grades.

It's a touchy issue for the agency. While Bennett's predecessor, Gerard Robinson, said he resigned in 2012 to spend more time with his family, it happened in the middle of a months-long controversy about the state's testing regimen and errors on school grades that forced the department to change the marks for dozens of schools.

Many educators blame what appears to be a wave of falling scores -- detected in the early calculations that school districts run -- to a spate of changes in the state's accountability system for schools, including 13 this year alone. In addition to making it more difficult to meet the standards, they say, the number of changes makes it more difficult to figure out what's causing the drop.

"If we had just done one or two of these, it might have been digestible," said Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. "But the fact that we're doing all of this ... it has become very traumatic."

Bennett was noncommittal about one of the superintendents' preferred suggestions, limiting the drop in each school's grade to one letter level -- for example, allowing the grade to drop from a "C" to a "D," but not to an "F." That policy was temporarily used in 2012 in the middle of the snafus during Robinson's tenure.

Superintendents say they aren't opposed to accountability, and expressed frustration at the fact that the state hasn't spent more time trying to educate the public on the possibility that school grades could fall even as students were learning more.

"The canvas is still blank, and when you have a blank canvas, all kinds of people start painting on it," said Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.


Perhaps even more closely watched than the release of school grades, at least among the lobbying industry in Tallahassee, was the first part of a study looking at whether Florida should take a chance on an expansion of gaming that could be at the center of one of the biggest battles of the 2014 legislative session.

The first part of the state-commissioned study largely focused on the current gambling industry in Florida. The New Jersey-based Spectrum Group didn't put all its cards on the table with the 307-page report, but made it clear that Florida doesn't need $2 billion destination casinos in Southeast Florida or a Native American group opening venues along Interstate 10 to be considered a "major gambling state."

And the study said the gaming industry is going to grow, with or haphazardly without state regulation.

"Intentionally or not, the policies established by lawmakers -- or the lack thereof -- play a critical role in the evolution and expansion of gaming," Spectrum stated. "Indeed, in the views of many, the 'evolution' and 'expansion' of gaming are largely synonymous. The industry rarely shrinks, and quite often expands, as a result of expansion."

Gambling generated $2.47 billion last year in tax revenue for Florida, and if nothing changed with the current gaming options, including the massive drop already experienced in play on the horses, dogs and humans tossing the jai-alai pelota against a wall, that jackpot would still double by 2060.

The rest of the $388,845 study is expected to look into the potential economic impacts of changing gaming across Florida, such as the impacts of ending or altering the exclusive Seminole Indian compact and allowing international casino operators into the state. It is due by Oct. 1.


While lawmakers considered their next move in the upcoming gambling battle, one of the fights from the 2013 session went to court. Just hours after changes took effect, plaintiffs' attorneys Monday filed five lawsuits challenging a key part of a new state medical-malpractice law, contending it violates the privacy rights of patients.

The lawsuits, in state and federal courts, argue that the new law could lead to the improper disclosure of personal health information to defense attorneys representing doctors or other health providers.

Such disclosure could happen without attorneys for the patients being present, a concept known in the legal world as "ex parte communications."

"When no one is present to protect the victim, sensitive medical information may be disclosed, no matter how irrelevant, personal, or embarrassing it may be to the patient," said Debra Henley, executive director of the Florida Justice Association, which represents plaintiffs' attorneys and lobbied against the law. "What is worse is that the (defense) attorney can do whatever he or she wants to with that sensitive information."

Those who support the law brushed off the challenges as nothing more than an attempt to re-litigate the issue through, well, litigation.

It is hardly surprising that the trial bar would challenge this, as they were content with the extremely uneven playing field that existed before this legislation was enacted,'' Timothy J. Stapleton, executive vice president of the Florida Medical Association, said in a prepared statement.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Spectrum Group issued the first part of its highly-anticipated study of gambling in Florida, which could set the framework for a fierce battle over the issue during next spring's legislative session.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "At the end of the day, this is a federal government bait-and-switch situation. They want to dangle money in front of us, get us to take it, and then three or four years from now, expect us to pay for it." -- House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, once again trying to tamp down talk of a special session on Medicaid expansion

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