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Silencing Maneuvers: When the Florida Legislature Resembles the Politbureau

| February 27, 2012

Looks familiar.

Republicans on the House Education Committee voted out a pair of education bills as Democrats bristled at a process that one compared to the Politburo.

The votes on the two measures — one overhauling standards and finances for charter schools (HB 903) and another limiting the power of the Florida High School Athletics Association (HB 1403) in some transfer cases — came as the committee neared the end of its meeting time.

Republicans twice used a parliamentary maneuver that limited each side to three minutes of debate, causing Democrats to vote against bills that several of them said they may have otherwise supported.

Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, ripped “how shady the process is” when describing why he would vote against the charter bill – even after the sponsor abandoned an amendment that has driven opposition in earlier committees. It was the second bill on which Republicans forced a vote with limited debate, known as “calling the question.”

“You end up losing votes for what really could have been an easily-passable, bipartisan bill,” Bullard said.

Rep. Luis Garcia, a Democrat and a Cuban-American, slammed the moves as resembling the Politburo and the Cuban government.

“You are not doing any honor to your families, your legacy by employing this procedure,” said Garcia, D-Miami Beach.

Republicans on the committee called for the minority party to instead focus on the substance of the bills, noting that the parliamentary maneuvers were only used because time was running short on what is likely the committee’s final meeting.

“I apologize for the process,” said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, who sponsored the charter bill. “But I would ask all of the members to please consider the merit of the bill when you cast your vote, and not cast a vote simply because of the process.”

Moments earlier, Adkins had pulled an amendment from consideration that would have forced school districts to provide construction money to public charter schools to ensure charter schools received the same amount of per-student funding as other public schools. School districts have fiercely fought the idea of splitting funds with the charter schools, noting that many of them are for-profit entities and can tap other resources for construction needs.

The measure passed 14-3 over a handful of Democratic votes — though Garcia voted for the measure after noting the language from one of his bills was tucked into the legislation.

After the meeting, Adkins said she was still trying to massage the construction funding clause — perhaps by allowing schools to phase in the proposal.

“We are continuing to work on language that would move us closer to equitable funding,” Adkins said.

The Senate companion (SB 1852) contains a stronger version of the construction funding language, but remains in the Senate Budget Committee after passing the Senate Education Committee three weeks ago.

The athletics bill, meant to focus punishments for high-school “recruiting” on coaches and schools instead of students, was approved on a party-line vote after similar gripes about the process.

“It’s going to make sure that children are not being punished for the behavior of the adults around them,” said Rep. Kelli Stargel, the Lakeland Republican who sponsored the bill. The way it would do that is to say that kids caught up in suspected recruiting cases would still be able to play – rather than having to sit out. The schools and coaches instead would be penalized.

Roger Dearing, executive director of FHSAA, said that’s what usually happens anyway – just 74 out of 263,000 students who play sports were denied eligibility last year because of the organization’s rules against improper transfer.

“For that, we get a bill that changes the way we operate and (currently) maintain a level playing field and stop recruiting in the state of Florida,” Dearing told the committee.

The Senate companion to that measure, SB 1704, still has two more committee stops in the upper chamber despite having passed its first committee Jan. 30.

Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

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