Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve as your State Representative. It is an honor to work each and every day on behalf of the people of this District. As you are probably aware, we just concluded another legislative session in Tallahassee. In my view, this was a very successful session in which we were able to accomplish much on behalf of all Floridians. In my opinion, Florida has made an amazing comeback and the work we did this session will continue to move our state in the right direction.
One of the most important things we do each year is pass a budget. This year, we have once again produced a budget that is balanced and what I believe is fiscally responsible. As I see it, the budget prioritizes our state's critical needs while leaving $3.1 billion in reserves to prepare Florida for the future. I believe this budget is a big win for Florida's children, as it provides the most K-12 state funding in history. The budget also continues to strengthen Florida's safety net by increasing funding to serve our most vulnerable populations, such as Floridians with severe disabilities and children in our juvenile welfare system. To put money back into the pockets of Floridians, the budget provides $500 million in tax and fee cuts - the largest in over a decade.
In addition to the budget, the Legislature passed several other important bills this session. To make Florida the most veteran friendly state in the nation, we passed the Florida G.I. Bill, which will increase educational and employment opportunities for our brave men and women in uniform. We passed legislation to make sure sexually violent predators, who might harm our children, face the toughest penalties in the nation. I believe that we passed substantial reforms to our education system and expanded educational opportunities to more students. We also took what I consider decisive action to strengthen the child welfare system and aid victims of human trafficking. I believe the work we did this session will be beneficial to many Floridians and take significant steps towards addressing many of the most critical issues we confront as a state.
Honoring Florida's Veterans
I believe the brave men and women who serve our country and protect our freedom should be honored and treated as heroes. That's why I enthusiastically supported House Bill 7015, Florida's GI Bill. This bill, which was signed into law by Governor Rick Scott on March 31, establishes Florida as the top "Welcome Home" state in the nation for veterans, military personnel and their families.
This legislation creates the Congressman C.W. Bill Young Tuition Waiver program, which waives out-of-state tuition fees for honorably discharged veterans and increases funding for the Education Dollars for Duty program to allow more members of the Florida National Guard to earn a degree. The bill also includes provisions aimed at helping veterans find employment, including the creation of the nonprofit Florida Is For Veterans, Inc., to assist retired and recently separated military personnel to keep Florida their home, equip them for opportunities to get a job and promote the hiring of veterans. To better serve our veterans in their time of need, this legislation also makes it easier for elderly veterans to get into Florida's state-run military nursing homes. These first-class facilities honor their patients with high-quality care, and I am pleased we were able to reduce barriers for our veterans to receive care faster.
Whether it is members of the Greatest Generation or those who have recently served overseas, I strongly believe that our servicemen and servicewomen deserve the best. I am proud that my first vote cast this session was for the Florida GI bill.
Florida Legislature Passes a Balanced 2014-15 Budget
The Legislature passed a balanced state budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which totals $77.1 billion, provides over $500 million in tax relief to our hardworking citizens and businesses, and plans for the future by maintaining $3.1 billion in reserves.
In my opinion, the budget we passed this session demonstrates our continued commitment to providing a quality education for Florida's students by proposing total state education funding that exceeds any previous year. We also reward universities that help students get jobs after graduation by providing $200 million in State University Performance Funding. Additionally, we included $544 million for maintenance, repair, renovation and construction projects at public K-12/charter schools, colleges and universities.
The budget continues to strengthen Florida's safety net by increasing funding to serve our most vulnerable populations. The Legislature has provided funding to serve all Floridians on the Agency for Persons with Disabilities Medicaid Waiver intensive needs waiting list and significantly invested in Florida's child welfare system to reduce caseloads for Child Protective Investigators to better serve and protect children in this state. We provided $116 million total funding for cancer treatment education and biomedical research. The budget includes significant investments to protect our environment, ensure the safety of our citizens and improve our transportation and education infrastructure.
I believe the 2014-15 budget responsibly directs significant funding toward key services, provides meaningful tax relief to Floridians, maximizes every dollar, and prioritizes funding in the best interest of all Floridians.
Florida Legislature Passes $500 Million in Tax and Fee Cuts
Recently, our state confronted as much as a $6.4 billion budget shortfall. Now, thanks to what I believe was responsible fiscal management and an improving economy, we have turned that shortfall into a surplus and have the opportunity to once again offer tax relief for all Floridians. Providing Floridians with substantial tax relief was a major priority of mine this session and I was pleased that the House focused on developing proposals that put money directly back into the pockets of hardworking Floridians. As part of the House and Senate leadership's Work Plan 2014, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 156 and House Bill 5601 to provide $500 million in tax and fee cuts for Florida's families and businesses - the largest tax and fee cut of its kind in over a decade.
Senate Bill 156 cuts a significant portion of the taxes, fees, and surcharges related to registering a motor vehicle, providing what I believe to be substantial savings to many Floridians. Individuals renewing their vehicle registration pay a combination of fees based on the size and type of vehicle, so the savings associated with this bill will be different for each individual based on the type of car they drive. On average, Floridians will see their registration costs reduced by $25.05 for heavyweight vehicles, $21.55 for middle-weight vehicles, and $18.55 for lightweight vehicles. This bill will provide $395 million in tax relief annually for Floridians.
House Bill 5601 includes significant tax cuts and spending aimed at providing over $105 million in savings to Floridians and encouraging job creation in the state. This tax cut package incorporates a broad range of components aimed to benefit all Floridians, including:
- A "Back to School" sales tax holiday from August 1 to August 3, including no sales tax on clothing and shoes priced at or below $100, school supplies priced at or below $15, and the first $750 of price on personal computer equipment.
- A "Hurricane Preparedness" sales tax holiday from May 31 to June 8 for supplies such as fuel tanks, flashlights, etc.
- A sales tax holiday from September 19 to September 21 on the first $1,500 spent on energy-efficient and water-efficient appliances.
- A sales tax exemption for children's car seats and youth bicycle helmets.
- A sales tax exemption for certain prepaid college meal plans.
- A $37.5 million increase in the tax credit cap for the New Markets Program to encourage job creation in low-income communities.
Floridians deserve to keep more of their hard-earned money. I believe the record tax cuts passed by the Legislature this session will keep Florida's economy moving in the right direction.
Florida's Response to Common Core
I worked diligently with my colleagues this session to ensure our education system is uniquely tailored to meet the educational needs of Florida's students. I believe Florida, not the federal government, is best suited to determine how to prepare our students to succeed. To align our schools with the standards set forward by the State Board of Education (SBE), the Legislature passed several bills this session to provide a first-rate education system.
House Bill 7031, which unanimously passed the House and Senate, removes the references in Florida Statutes to the Common Core standards that were placed in law last year, when our state was on a different path. The standards have not been renamed - they were, and continue to be, the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. The federal government is not involved in the SBE's adoption or update of standards.
The Legislature passed Senate Bill 1642, which simplifies school grade calculations for grades K-12 to focus more closely on student performance, graduation and acceleration toward college credit and industry certification. The bill provides more flexibility and control for school districts to develop local assessments for teacher evaluations. I believe this legislation will allow Florida to transition to a simplified, more transparent school accountability system designed to improve student and teacher performance using the new standards and assessments.
In response to concerns about local control of curriculum, I supported Senate Bill 864, which makes clear that instructional materials and curriculum choices are the constitutional responsibility of district school boards. The bill maintains the option for each district school board to implement its own instructional materials program, but adds new requirements to the process. By holding local school boards accountable for the K-12 instructional materials they use in their schools, local control is emphasized and enhanced, and parents are given a stronger voice in what their children are taught.
The Legislature also addressed the issue of student data security by passing Senate Bill 188. The bill prohibits any agency or institution from collecting information regarding the political affiliation, voting history, religious affiliation, or biometrics of a student or the student's parent or sibling. By preventing the collection of student-specific data, we will better protect our students from the risk of identity theft or other criminal acts.
By addressing these concerns and issues, I believe the Florida Legislature has taken a coordinated approach to reforming our education system to provide students with the best opportunities to succeed. I believe accountability and state-based standards for our schools and educators are vital in preparing Florida students for college and their careers.
Expanding School Choice for Florida's Parents
As I see it, the Florida Legislature made a concerted effort this session to provide students with additional educational opportunities by passing Senate Bill 850. This bill expands the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTCSP) and creates personal learning accounts for students with special needs. The FTCSP provides low-income students with scholarships that give them the opportunity to attend a private school that may better suit their educational needs.
Currently, families of four participating in the FTCSP can earn no more than $44,000 annually. Under this bill, eligibility is expanded to include families of four earning up to $62,000, allowing more children to participate in this successful program. The bill also allows children in foster care to be eligible for the FTCSP. The bill requires private schools with a majority of students receiving the tax credit scholarship to submit student performance data to be evaluated on how scholarship students are performing.
Senate Bill 850 also establishes the Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Account Program to provide parents of students with disabilities more flexibility to customize their children's education. It allows parents of children with severe disabilities to use funds the state would have spent on their education to pay instead for their specific therapy. Students with disabilities will benefit from the ability to receive treatment that goes beyond the scope of what a public school may offer.
I believe this important legislation will allow more hardworking families to have the opportunity to provide their children with an education that best fits their individual needs.
Aiding Victims of Human Trafficking
Human trafficking is the control of another person for the purpose of exploitation, such as by forcing him or her into prostitution or unpaid labor. Sadly, human trafficking is prevalent in Florida. Even with growing awareness, many victims of human trafficking remain unidentified and services to meet their many needs are lacking. One aspect of human trafficking is of particular concern: commercial sexual exploitation of children. According to the FBI, the average age of a sexually-trafficked child is 13.
The Florida Legislature unanimously passed House Bill 7141 which supports the state's efforts against human trafficking by creating new administrative requirements for the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the community-based care lead agencies, which provide child welfare services, to ensure they have the infrastructure to respond properly to victims. The bill also creates a certification process and standards for "safe houses" and "safe foster homes" for sexually exploited children to ensure appropriate quality.
The bill also directs the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability to study commercial sexual exploitation of children in Florida. Finally, the bill creates a fifteen-member Statewide Council on Human Trafficking within the Department of Legal Services to enhance the development and coordination of state and local law enforcement and social service responses to fight commercial sexual exploitation.
This session, the Florida House made it a priority to protect Florida's most vulnerable children, including victims of human trafficking. HB 7141 will help sexually exploited children get the services they need to overcome their abuse and to heal.
Strengthening Florida's Child Welfare System
It is tragic for a child to die from abuse or neglect. This session, we passed SB 1666 to reform Florida's child welfare system. The bill helps children who are at risk of or have suffered abuse and neglect by improving transparency, accountability, and quality in the child welfare system.
This legislation establishes a new position, the Assistant Secretary for Child Welfare, within the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to spearhead the department's efforts to improve child protection and welfare. The bill also increases the qualifications of new child protective investigators (CPIs), case managers and their supervisors. To encourage individuals to dedicate their careers to protecting our children, the bill creates loan forgiveness and tuition exemption programs for those receiving an education in social work.
The bill also seeks to improve care for medically complex children who come in contact with the child welfare system by requiring specialized training for CPIs and services and care for such children that allow them to live in the most nurturing, least restrictive environment.
The bill also promotes greater transparency. To keep the public informed, the basic facts of all child deaths must be published on DCF's website. The bill also requires DCF-appointed teams to immediately investigate deaths of children in the child welfare system. Additionally, the bill requires all child deaths reported on the Florida Abuse Hotline to be reviewed by the statewide child death abuse review committee.
To help the leaders of Florida's child welfare system learn about best practices and innovative approaches, the bill creates the Florida Institute for Child Welfare as a "think tank" for the state. The bill also requires the institute to provide an annual report to the Governor and Legislature.
In addition to SB 1666, HB 7141 makes reforms to the child welfare system by requiring DCF to establish a results-oriented accountability program. The program will monitor and measure the use of resources, the quality and amount of services provided, and child and family outcomes. The program will make the outcome data available to the public to improve transparency.
The Legislature also made what I believe to be a significant financial commitment to reforming child welfare services, by adding over $62 million in recurring funds to the program. A total of $800,000 in appropriations was made to contract for a plan for the results-orientated accountability program and to fund the student loan forgiveness program for educations in social work.
The Florida Legislature is committed to improving Florida's child welfare services. I believe this legislation will help to ensure that our state better protects and serves our most vulnerable children.
Providing Pathways to Affordable Higher Education
With bipartisan support, the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 851, which allows undocumented children residing in the state, who attended a Florida high school for three consecutive years and enroll in college within two years after graduating high school, to pay the lower in-state tuition rate offered to all other Floridians. These students are required to submit their high school transcript as documentary evidence of attendance and graduation. These students are not eligible for state financial aid, such as Bright Futures.
I believe it is wrong to preclude children who were brought to this country illegally through no fault of their own from the same opportunity to receive a higher education by attending college alongside their peers. The federal government requires Florida to make a substantial investment in the K-12 education of these children, and it is vital to the state's economy that we support their continued learning. While the federal government continues to struggle to develop a substantive, national immigration policy, the Florida Legislature is doing its best to ensure that all of our talented students can enter our workforce well educated and prepared to meet the demands of our growing economy.
Striving to Keep Higher Education Costs Affordable
This session, the Florida Legislature tackled the issue of rising higher-education costs by passing House Bill (HB) 851 to help make college education more affordable. Previously, state universities could request annual tuition hikes of up to 15 percent. This bill changes that law by allowing only designated preeminent state research universities to request a 6 percent tuition increase. Currently, the University of Florida and Florida State University are the only two universities with that designation. The bill also eliminates the automatic annual rate of inflation increases currently authorized for institutions of higher learning.
HB 851 also makes higher education more affordable for those in the military by allowing all of the brave servicemen and women stationed here to pay the in-state tuition rate for their college education, regardless of whether or not they are considered a Florida resident and by waiving Purple Heart recipients' tuition at career and technical education centers.
Further, we approved changes that will hold down costs for families participating in the Florida Prepaid College Program. These changes will reduce the cost of a new 4-Year Florida University Plan by $10,000 and will result in $50 million in refunds to families with an existing 4-Year Florida University Plan. This change will allow more Florida families to take advantage of this program and responsibly save for their child's education at a more affordable rate.
The measures passed by the Legislature this year will provide Floridians access to a more affordable higher-education that will prepare them for success in the workforce, not saddle them with insurmountable debt.
Protecting Florida's Most Vulnerable
This session, the Florida Legislature passed a series of bills to protect children from sexually violent predators. This legislative package strengthens Florida's ability to punish these criminals to the fullest extent of the law, helping to ensure they are no longer allowed to slip through the cracks of our justice system and reoffend.
Each bill, which passed unanimously and was signed by Governor Rick Scott, focuses on different aspects of reforming Florida's approach to sexually violent predators.
- Senate Bill (SB) 522 creates a process by which persons sentenced to a term of imprisonment in a jail can be referred to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) for civil commitment by state attorneys. The bill also raises standards and increases accountability in the DCF evaluation process for determining whether an offender meets criteria for commitment to the Sexually Violent Predator Program. It requires DCF to notify victims, the Department of Corrections (DOC), the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), and the sheriffs in the county in which the person intends to reside or, if unknown, in the county in which the person was last convicted, of the release of all persons in the custody of DCF.
- SB 524 creates enhanced standards for the membership of the DCF multidisciplinary team. The bill also requires private and public colleges and universities to inform students and employees about FDLE's sexual predator and offender registry website and toll-free telephone number that gives access to sexual predator and offender information.
- SB 528 strengthens the registration requirements applicable to sexual predators and offenders to bring those requirements further in line with the federal Adam Walsh Act.
- SB 526 increases the penalties for specified sexual battery and lewd or lascivious offenses against children, increases to 50 years the minimum mandatory sentence for dangerous sexual felony offenders convicted of certain serious sex offenses, requires the court to impose a split sentence in which an offender convicted of specified sexual offenses is sentenced to 2 years of community supervision after serving his or her term of imprisonment, and creates a new sentencing multiplier for specified adult-on-minor sexual offenses. The bill also ensures that the probationary period of an offender in DCF's custody pursuant to the Jimmy Ryce Act does not begin until the person is released from DCF's custody.
With this legislative package, Florida has sent a message to sexually violent predators that they are not welcome in our state. I am proud to have voted in support of these bills that will protect our families and children.
An Update to Florida's Self-Defense Laws Passes with Bipartisan Support
To strengthen and clarify Florida's self-defense laws, the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 89 relating to the Threatened Use of Force.
A close read of Florida's self-defense laws reflects that only a person's actual use of force can be justifiable - not a person's threatened use of force. Similarly, the law provides criminal and civil immunity to persons who lawfully use force in self-defense. House Bill 89 amends Florida's current law to specify that a person's threat to use force may be justifiable. This bill specifies that a person who lawfully threatens to use force is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action. A person may also have his or her criminal history record expunged if he or she was not charged or the case was dismissed because it was found that the person acted in lawful self-defense.
Recently, those who have been convicted of crimes such as aggravated assault for threatening to use force have been sentenced to mandatory minimum sentences. To prevent individuals who lawfully threaten to use force in self-defense, House Bill 89 requires a judge to depart from the mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated assault convictions on a case by case basis if certain criteria are met. The bill also clarifies that a person does not have a duty to retreat before using deadly force if they are in a place they have a right to be and are not engaged in a criminal (rather than unlawful) activity.
One of my top priorities is to ensure the safety of Florida's families, and that's why I supported this legislation this session.
Calling on Congress to Balance the Federal Budget
Currently, the United States Congress has no requirement to pass a balanced budget. In an effort to make what I believe to be needed changes to our federal budget, the Florida Legislature passed Senate Memorial 658. The Senate Memorial is an application to the United States Congress requesting it to convene an Article V constitutional convention.
Article V of the United States Constitution provides two methods for proposing amendments to the Constitution. The first method authorizes Congress to propose amendments to the states, which are approved by a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress. The second method, which has never been used, requires Congress to call a constitutional convention for proposing amendments upon the application of two-thirds of the state legislatures. Currently, 34 states need to make such applications to meet this two-thirds requirement. Both methods require ratification of the proposed amendments by three-fourths (38) of the states.
The convention called for in Senate Memorial 658 would be limited to proposing an amendment to the Constitution which requires that, except in a national emergency, the total of all federal appropriations for any fiscal year may not exceed the total of all estimated federal revenues for that fiscal year, together with any related and appropriate fiscal restraints. I believe that with the passage of this Memorial, the Florida Legislature has sent a clear message to Congress that there is a need for fiscal responsibility on the national level.
Government Ethics Legislation Heads to the Governor
A commitment to ethics and integrity in government is essential to maintaining trust in Florida's political system. I believe the people of Florida deserve nothing less than the highest level of ethical behavior from their elected officials. That's why, in 2013, the Florida Legislature enacted comprehensive ethics reform for the first time in almost 40 years. This year, the Legislature's passage of Senate Bill 846 builds upon last year's reform in several significant areas.
First, the bill requires officers and certain employees of the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation, Enterprise Florida, Inc., the Divisions of Enterprise Florida, Inc., the Florida Development Finance Corporation and Citizens Property Insurance Corporation to comply with provisions of the state Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees. Second, the bill expands on the 2013 ethics reform by requiring elected municipal officers to complete four hours of annual ethics, public records and open meetings training. The bill also requires all public officers who must complete annual ethics training to certify completion on their annual financial disclosures. Third, the bill requires all citizen and direct support organizations to adopt a code of ethics consistent with the state Code of Ethics. Lastly, the bill increases transparency in government by requiring any person who lobbies a water management district for compensation to register as a lobbyist with that district.
Public office is a public trust. I believe this legislation will restore our citizens' faith in government and elected officials by making them more responsive and accountable to the people they serve.
Florida House Passes Legislation to Reform Public Retirement Plans
This session, I made it a priority to change the Florida Retirement System (FRS) and local public pension plans by passing House Bill 7181, which I believe will modernize the system. The bill, part of the House and Senate leadership's Work Plan 2014, made a number of responsible changes to the FRS that would only affect new employees who initially enroll in the system on or after July 1, 2015. The bill also proposed changes to city firefighter and police officer pension plans to help ensure those plans are stable and well-funded.
I believe that a modernized retirement system will be more suitable for today's mobile workforce, as most individuals currently entering the workforce do not plan on staying at the same job for their entire careers. In addition, I believe that a modernized system will also provide more financial certainty for the state and reduce risk to the taxpayers. The bill passed this session was a compromise approach that I believe would have moved public retirement plans in the right direction.
I believe the items proposed in this bill were reasonable, fair, and fiscally responsible. It's time to modernize the FRS and ensure that public retirement plans are financially sound. I believe that by acting now, we can make changes in a thoughtful and deliberate manner and ensure that current retirees are protected. Although this measure did not pass the Senate this session, I believe modernizing the FRS and local public pension plans should remain a priority of the Legislature.
Keeping Electronic Cigarettes Out of the Hands of Minors
I strongly believe it is important to keep our children safe and healthy. In the last few years, electronic cigarettes, commonly known as e-cigarettes or e-cigs, have become increasingly popular, particularly with teenagers, because of the use of vaporizers with bright colors and different flavors. However, these e-cigarettes still contain levels of nicotine that may be harmful.
We need to prevent our children from having access to these addictive products. As our children grow and mature into adulthood, they do not need to be exposed to the harmful effects of nicotine. That is why I supported Senate Bill 224 to keep nicotine and nicotine dispensing products out of the hands of children. This bill creates a new law similar to current laws related to tobacco products for persons under the age of 18 to now prohibit selling, giving, or using nicotine dispensing devices, including e-cigarettes, to and by persons under the age of 18, and provides penalties for such violations.
With this great bill, we have taken another important step in protecting our children from the harmful effects of nicotine.
Providing Floridians More Options for Flood Insurance
Recently, over 250,000 Floridians were faced with substantial flood insurance premium rate increases due to the federal Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 (Act). The Act was set to eliminate subsidized rates and force certain policyholders to immediately begin paying full-risk rates. I believe this Act would have hurt Floridians and jeopardized the recovery of Florida's housing market by overly burdening new homeowners. Although the U.S. Congress eventually passed legislation to mitigate some of the negative effects on our state, the situation demonstrated the need to ensure Florida policyholders are protected in the future.
The Legislature passed Senate Bill 542, which I believe takes important steps to bring more competition to the flood insurance market and to offer consumers more choice. Currently, the primary choice for flood insurance coverage for most Florida homeowners is the federal government's insurance program. However, this bill provides what I believe is a responsible alternative, giving Florida homeowners additional options by encouraging more private sector choices for flood insurance.
With more private insurance companies entering the flood insurance marketplace, Floridians will have more options to select a policy that best fits their needs. It is my hope that these changes encourage more hardworking Floridians to purchase homes so that Florida's economic recovery will continue to head in a positive direction.
Getting Floridians Back on the Road and Back to Work
The Legislature passed House Bill 7005 which offers a path to reinstatement for Floridians burdened by massive fines due to suspended and revoked driver licenses. According to a recent report, as many as 167,000 driver licenses were suspended or revoked in the last year for non-driving-related infractions. The suspension and revocation of a driver license can prevent many Floridians from staying employed since they have no way to drive to work. Often times, the people affected most by these situations are Floridians living in poverty. Without a job, these individuals cannot pay the associated fines or provide for their families.
The bill prohibits the court from suspending the driver license of a person for a first offense of failure to appear in court for a worthless check charge. The bill reduces the length of driver license revocation for drug related convictions from two years to one year and requires the court to determine whether the issuance of a business purposes only license is appropriate in each case. The bill also authorizes the issuance of a business purpose only driver license for persons who have had their driver license suspended for violations related to selling, giving, or serving alcohol to minors, or for misdemeanor theft. The bill allows a child support obligor to avoid the suspension of his or her driver license by beginning to pay the obligation by income deduction or if extenuating circumstances can be proven.
I believe this bill addresses generational poverty in Florida and provides these individuals with a realistic and achievable path forward to get back on their feet.