Our elected representatives have been in session for three weeks now in Tallahassee. Anyone who has watched the Florida Legislature in their two-month session knows that they can do a lot of damage in that 60-day window and it’s best to keep an close eye on them. Here are a few things they’ve been doing.
The Florida House is ready to drop an extra $200 million on charter schools. Supposedly to help provide options to students in under-performing public schools. While the House education budget for pre-K-12 is looking like it will be about $15.1 billion, a 5.75% increase, the state has for years played games with public school funding, teacher pay and testing. It seems as if they have been purposely setting public schools up to fail to justify the proliferation and support of charter schools, which are often given a pass on the onerous regulations that public schools face. First lesson kids: Life is not fair.
Public Policy Polling conducted a survey of 735 registered voters in Florida on March 12-14 asking about support for open primaries. Not surprisingly, 73% of respondents said that taxpayer-funded primaries should be open to all voters. 72% supported a ballot initiative to restore voting rights to individuals who have completed their sentences for nonviolent criminal offenses. Sponsored by three pro-open primary groups, Open Primaries, Florida Fair and Open Primaries and Progress For All, the poll also found strong support for a referendum on the ballot next year to open primary elections.
Currently, Florida’s primary elections are “closed” primaries. Only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary and only registered Democrats can run in the Democratic primary election. We are one of only nine states that hold completely closed primary elections. The only time a non-party member can vote in a taxpayer-funded primary is if all the candidates for that race are running as members of that party. Here in SWFL, that means Republican. Most elections are decided in the Republican primary, which is always closed by having a never-heard-of-‘em-before write in candidate file to run. If voters want to cast a meaningful vote, they have to register as a Republican. If primaries were open, that would not be necessary.
Tallahassee just cannot leave this topic alone and let local communities decide how to handle vacation rentals. This week a House panel approved a bill that would prevent local governments from placing restrictions on vacation rental properties. And any local restrictions put in place since July 1, 2011 would be vacated. This will reopen the debate between vacation rental owners and communities and neighbors trying to curb noise, parking, trash and other complaints in residential neighborhoods. The state first preempted local control in 2011. After local governments pushed back, the Legislature rolled back part of the preemption law giving local communities some authority over rentals. Fort Myers Beach’s Short Term Rental rules were set in 2003. As a result of the Legislature tinkering with the state rules, any change at all to the current short-term rental rules would negate the entire set of short-term rental regulations.
FPL, Fracking & You
If HB 1043 passes, Florida Power & Light customers may soon be paying for fracking operations in other states. With utility customers objecting, the Florida House Subcommittee on Energy and Utilities approved a bill that would give the Florida Public Service Commission the ok to allow utilities that generate at least 65% of their electricity with natural gas to invest in oil and natural gas exploration, including fracking, and pass those costs along to customers. FPL is the only utility that would qualify right now. It would be the first time in the United States that a utility company would be given permission to shift the risk of exploratory drilling to customers instead of shareholders, without any need to determine if each investment was prudent. FPL has been trying to shift the costs of their interest in Oklahoma’s Woodford Shale area to customers since 2014. In May 2016 the Florida Supreme Court ruled 6-1 against the Public Service Commission’s approval of FPL’s efforts to shift the investment costs to customers saying, “Exploration, drilling and production of natural gas fuel in Oklahoma do not constitute generating, transmitting or distributing electricity in Florida.” FPL shareholders should love this bill, obviously filed as a way around the court ruling. They would benefit financially without shouldering any of the risk.
Keep your eye on Tallahassee during the Legislative session. You can be sure that lobbyists that do not have your best interests in mind are paying close attention.