Weekly Roundup: Home Stretch of Pre-Session Meetings
Around the State
Before lawmakers returned to their districts for the last week before the 2014 legislative session begins, they capped off a week of discussions about living arrangements and homecomings.
A rule outlining how to figure out where a legislator resides began moving through both chambers. The House tried to prod the Senate into acting on a measure giving in-state tuition to students who live in the state illegally. And Florida State University President Eric Barron's appointment at Penn State University became official, marking Barron's departure from one home only to return to another.
Meanwhile, the prospect of overhauling the state's retirement plan seemed to settle into its usual Senate neighborhood among the bills which have longer odds of passing. And the State Board of Education was strayed into hostile territory in dealing with the fiery objections of activists angry about Florida's plans to move forward with education guidelines resembling the Common Core standards.
RELUCTANT ON RETIREMENT:
When Senate Community Affairs Chairman Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, unveiled an overhaul to the Florida Retirement System that would largely exempt law enforcement officers and emergency workers, it was seen as a gesture to a bloc of mavericks who torpedoed a more expansive revamp of the pension plan last year. Instead, the first of those mavericks to cast a vote on the measure in a Senate panel voted against it.
"I've got more convincing to do," Simpson said after Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, opposed the bill Tuesday.
Latvala, one of the leaders of last year's opposition to pension changes, teamed up with the Democrats to nearly defeat the bill (SB 1114), which the committee approved with a 5-4 vote.
This year's Senate proposal would close the Florida Retirement System's traditional pension plan to new employees after July 1, 2015, though those employees already in the system would remain. New hires would be required to choose between a 401(k)-style investment plan and a "cash balance" plan, which in some ways acts like a 401(k) but guarantees a minimum benefit.
Law enforcement officers and emergency personnel who qualify for the "special risk" category could still sign up for the traditional pension plan.
But Latvala suggested that some law-enforcement personnel aren't classified as special risk, and he questioned moving forward with the bill before an accounting review of the proposal was finished.
"I really am taken aback by how you would want us to start voting on a bill where -- although you may understand, and you may believe in your heart, and I know you believe in your heart that this is the right thing for our future -- when we don't have any numbers, any actuarial study to show us that," Latvala said.
Still, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is expected to continuing pushing changes to the FRS. Supporters of rejiggering the plan say the state spends too much to shore up the system's finances.
"There's a glaring problem with $500 million a year that we're putting toward the pension fund as opposed to education," Weatherford said Tuesday. "It's too soon to say what exactly it's going to look like."
Since taking over their respective chambers in late 2012, Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, have gone out of their way to work together. The buddy act was one of the foundations of last year's relatively peaceful legislative session, at least when it came to House-Senate relations.
But, Gaetz said half-jokingly during an interview with The News Service of Florida on Friday, the two have finally found an issue on which they disagree: allowing some undocumented students to avoid paying out-of-state tuition rates.
The bill (HB 851), strongly backed by Weatherford, won approval Wednesday from a House subcommittee. But prospects for the measure in the Senate are uncertain at best -- though it seemed Friday that Gaetz was opening the door to the idea that the bill could pass.
"Somebody who favors providing in-state tuition to the children of undocumented, or if you wish, illegals, did a vote count and came in and talked with me about it and they said there's 18 votes to pass what the speaker is proposing. And that's before the debate even starts. I think we'll have a divided Senate in this issue," Gaetz said.
Latvala is expected to roll out a proposal that would allow students who have attended at least three years of high school in Florida to pay cheaper, in-state tuition, similar to the measure that received unanimous support in a House subcommittee this week. Latvala said he plans to release the details of his plan Wednesday at a press conference in Clearwater.
"In this particular case, we're talking about children who really weren't responsible for the decision that their parents made as to where they lived and how they got there," Latvala said. "I don't think that penalizing them by making them pay more is a fair way to approach that."
Gaetz is still skeptical of the idea, given that his district includes many hard-line conservatives who favor a more hawkish view of immigration. But allowing a vote to happen could send the measure to Gov. Rick Scott with or without the president's approval.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME:
The in-state tuition rate might have had something to do with one of the high-profile departures from Florida government this week: FSU President Eric Barron, whose hiring by Penn State became official during a meeting in State College, Pa., on Monday.
Barron, who spent 20 years as a faculty member and administrator at Penn State beginning in 1986, is leaving Tallahassee four years after becoming president at FSU, his alma mater.
"In many ways, I never left Penn State," said Barron, wearing a light blue shirt and dark blue tie after being introduced at a board meeting called to vote on his appointment. Pointing to his heart and then his head, Barron added: "Penn State lives here, Penn State lives here, and it's a great pleasure to be about to live here."
Florida State's board of trustees met a couple of days later to begin the process of replacing its former president, who at times seemed frustrated with Scott's efforts to hold down college tuition. The trustees want a replica of their last president to take over now.
"When looking for a model president, to me, I don't think you have to look too far further than Eric Barron," board member Andy Haggard said. "That includes fundraising, his tremendous concern for athletics, and for our students."
Board member Joseph Gruters suggested any search tip toward people with ties to the school.
"If I had my way, I'd hire another FSU alumni," Gruters said.
I'M GOING TO MAKE THIS PLACE YOUR HOME:
One place that seems to be headed for easy passage is a joint House-Senate rule that would set residency standards for lawmakers, expected to be one of the first measures to pass the Legislature when the session begins March 4.
The Senate Rules Committee unanimously passed the bill Wednesday after a brief discussion. The House Rules and Calendar Committee followed up Thursday in a meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes. Both chambers hope to approve the proposal on the first day of the session and try to put the smoldering issue to rest.
Latvala, whose advocacy on the issue has prompted suspicions that Senate politics are at play, is firmly on board with the new measure.
"I think that this will go a long way in giving some guidance to members of the Legislature on how they're supposed to conduct themselves and where they're supposed to live and how to determine where their real residence is, for anybody that has a hard time figuring that out," he said.
"Anybody" could very well refer to Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, one of Latvala's top targets in his campaign to make sure lawmakers live in their districts. In the 2012 elections, Sachs defeated one of Latvala's supporters in his race for the Senate presidency. Latvala has since publicly accused Sachs of living outside her district.
Sachs strenuously denies those charges and says her residency has been established by state reviews.
Away from the Capitol, the normally sedate meeting of the State Board of Education turned into a rowdy protest of the Common Core State Standards just as the panel voted to tweak, but not trash, the benchmarks for student learning.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has argued that the changes, which include reinserting creative writing into the standards and explicitly including calculus guidelines -- as well as the fact that the state has science and social studies standards that aren't part of the Common Core -- justify renaming the initiative as the "Florida Standards."
But largely conservative activists who have fought to get the state to drop the entire Common Core initiative seemed unmoved. They see the plan as a federal plot to take over education and blame it for a variety of ills.
"I do not want a watered-down, world-class system; I want a school system that promotes American exceptionalism," said Chris Quackenbush, a leader of the anti-Common Core movement.
At one point, Quackenbush and board chairman Gary Chartrand clashed over an attempt to stop audience members from clapping during the meeting. For a while, the crowd seemed to go along, waving their hands and at least one American flag instead of applauding.
Most lawmakers and Scott seem willing to try to leave the entire issue behind for now. Whether they can in the face of dogged opposition during an election year remains to be seen.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida State University President Eric Barron is hired by Penn State University, prompting a search for his replacement.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "There is an emergent psychological pandemic taking place among children in Florida. It's called Common Core, or it used to be until it was rebranded. Our children are suffering from anxiety attacks, vomiting, emotional outbursts, headaches and even self-mutilation." -- Stacie Clark, a critic of Common Core, at a meeting of the State Board of Education.