The 2012 Legislative Session was punctuated by an early January start, the drawing of new district maps, uncertainty in the Senate over future leadership positions and a relatively low number of bills passed. Despite the unconventional session, legislators fulfilled their constitutional requirement to pass a budget for the next fiscal year, and ended session on time one minute before midnight this past Friday. However, legislators were required to report back to Tallahassee on Wednesday to begin work on drawing new Senate district maps following the Florida Supreme Court’s Friday ruling that found the Senate’s redistricting plan unconstitutional.
Slightly higher than last year, the $70 billion spending plan agreed to by both chambers includes more than $1 billion in funding for public education, a top legislative priority of Gov. Rick Scott. While education funding fared better than in previous years, deep cuts were made to health care services, and counties will be forced to pay the state millions of dollars in disputed Medicaid charges. Nonetheless, the budget picture for children, youth and family services is brighter this year with many reductions averted and funds restored to programs that suffered hefty cuts last year.
The majority of children’s programs remain funded at last year’s levels. In addition, funding for KidCare and Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) was increased to support additional enrollment in each of these programs. Given the nearly $2 billion budget deficit facing the Legislature this year, the increases to some programs and overall maintenance of funding is quite an accomplishment for child and family advocates.
In addition, the combined efforts of advocates across the state resulted in the successful defeat and reshaping of proposals that would have severely harmed support services for children and families. Key amongst this was the unified effort to stave off legislation that would have irrevocably altered the state’s early learning system by stripping it of educational standards and accountability for providers. Fierce advocacy yielded a much-improved bill that now includes pre- and post-assessments for school readiness and some flexibility for local Early Learning Coalitions.
Health care advocates were also able to convince the Senate to drop a proposal to shift hundreds of thousands of people enrolled in the MediPass program into Medicaid HMOs or other managed care plans. On the budget side, a proposed cut to the Road to Independence program, which provides support to former foster children, was stopped. Likewise, in the reorganization of the Department of Health, very detrimental proposals were changed to more acceptable ones.
Children’s Programs Held Harmless; Some Programs Restored
Child advocates were instrumental in communicating to lawmakers the importance of programs that impact children and families, thereby preserving and restoring funding for several programs, including Healthy Start, Independent Living for youth aging out of the foster care system, and children’s mental health. Additionally, during budget negotiations, the Senate and House agreed on additional funding of $6.8 million to continue the Early Steps program, which helps children at risk of developmental delays become self-sufficient, productive citizens. Also, $2 million needed to make Healthy Families completely whole was found. After sustaining this cut last year, the Legislature agreed that the program (proven to be 98 percent effective in eliminating abuse and neglect among the high-risk families it serves) should not be further cut.
In addition, most of the juvenile justice system’s front end was held harmless with full funding for proven prevention programs, such as Children and Families in Need of Services (CINS/FINS), Intensive Delinquency Diversion Services (IDDS) and Juvenile Assessment Centers (JACs). Further, an additional $6 million was provided to expand the successful redirection program.
The budget provides $413.3 million, an increase of $28.7 million or 7.5 percent, for an expected additional 11,555 students. Unfortunately, the base student allocation remains the same at $2,383.
CS/HB 107 – Special Districts by Economic Affairs Committee; Finance and Tax Committee; Community and Military Affairs Subcommittee; and Rep. Matt Caldwell (R-Ft. Myers) and others/SB 192 by Budget Subcommittee on Finance and Tax; and Sen. Mike Bennett (R-Bradenton) relating to special district merger and dissolution procedures is pending final approval by Gov. Scott.
This bill creates a new procedure that allows two or more contiguous independent special districts with similar functions and governing bodies to voluntarily merge. The bill allows merger proceedings to be initiated either by joint resolution of the governing bodies of each district or by a petition signed by 40 percent or more of the qualified electors in each district. The independent special districts must adopt a merger plan that outlines the specific components for the proposed merger which shall be subject to a public hearing and a voter referendum.
The bill states that a voluntary merger under the new procedure preempts any special act to the contrary, but that the procedure does not apply to independent special districts whose governing bodies are elected by district landowners voting for the acreage owned within the district.
This bill also provides that for voluntary dissolutions of independent special districts operating pursuant to a special act, the dissolution may be effectuated only by the Legislature. For all other dissolutions of independent special districts, a special act dissolving the district must be approved by a referendum. If the district meets the requirements for being considered “inactive,” no referendum is needed.
Statutory provisions addressing the merger of independent special fire control districts are repealed and the Department of Economic Opportunity is authorized to declare a special district inactive if the district’s governing body unanimously adopts a resolution declaring inactivity. If approved by the Governor, these provisions take effect July 1, 2012.
CS/HJR 93 and HB 95 by Rep. Shawn Harrison (R-Temple Terrace) passed the Legislature and has gone to the Governor for final action. The constitutional amendment will be placed on the November 2012 ballot for voter consideration. If approved, the joint resolution proposes a state constitutional amendment to allow the Legislature to provide ad valorem homestead property tax relief to a surviving spouse of a military veteran who died from service-connected causes while on active duty or a surviving spouse of a first responder who died in line of duty. The implementing bill for the amendment, HB 95, also passed and was sent to the Governor.
CS/HJR 169/HB 357 by Rep. Jose Oliva (R-Miami) passed the House and Senate, and now makes its way to the Governor for final consideration. This constitutional amendment would give counties and cities the authority to provide additional property tax relief for low-income seniors.
CS/HJR 1003 by Rep. Eric Eisnaugle (R-Orlando) passed the House by a 112-2 margin and the Senate by a 40-0 vote. This constitutional amendment will go before the voters on the November 2012 ballot. If passed, it would provide an additional property tax exemption on tangible personal property valued at more than $25,000 but less than $50,000. It also authorizes counties and cities to provide additional tangible personal property tax relief for businesses.
HB 7087 by the House Finance & Tax Committee is an omnibus economic development package passed by the Legislature this session. Included in the legislation is a “sales tax holiday” that provides for a three-day sales tax break for back to school shoppers from Aug. 3-5. Shoppers would not pay sales tax on clothing, shoes and textbooks valued at $75 or less, and on school supplies at $15 or less. The Governor is expected to sign the legislation.
Last week, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford ruled that the law requiring members of the Florida Retirement System (FRS) to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to the pension fund was unconstitutional. The state has said it will appeal the ruling. However, if upheld, the state would need to repay and replace the nearly $2 billion in savings achieved through last year’s legislation. If lawmakers are forced to take this money from reserves, it could have a negative fiscal impact next session.
This session also included the passage of additional legislation affecting the FRS. HB 5005:
The Early Learning budget was held harmless and, despite early opposition, funding to continue the development of the Early Learning Information System (ELIS) was provided. The system will play an important role in ensuring increased provider accountability and payments. In addition, funding for the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (T.E.A.C.H.) program was maintained.
Office of Early Learning (OEL)
The final early learning bill that passed is a huge deviation from the four bills originally filed that could have ultimately dismantled the entire system. The Florida Children’s Council’s top three priorities of screening, assessment and curriculum were all preserved in the final bill. Overall, the changes and modifications to current law preserve educational and accountability requirements, and the potential limits to quality spending put into place have the greatest flexibility possible. Though this was a much-improved piece of legislation, child advocates remain concerned about the caps on quality expenditures, and the impacts to school-age children. If the bill becomes law, it will take effect July 1, 2012.
Specifics on the legislation are provided below.
House Bill 5103: School Readiness Programs
Mental Health and Substance Abuse
Children’s mental health programs were fully funded, and adult mental health and substance abuse programs were eventually funded at continuing levels. The Director of Substance Abuse position in the Department of Children and Families (DCF) was also preserved.
The final budget contains the restoration of funds in the DCF budget as follows:
KidCare – Budget
Highlights of the KidCare budget according to the Florida Healthy Kids (HK) Corporation include:
Legislation Impacting the Florida KidCare Program
HB 5301 – Medicaid Services incorporated stand-alone language from SB 510 by Sen. Nan Rich (D-Weston) to re-establish KidCare eligibility requirements for children of public employees who meet other eligibility requirements. The bill also directs the DCF and the AHCA to work together to develop a single system of eligibility determination for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance program.
SB 1294 by Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah) would have provided coverage and a federal match for an additional 20,550 immigrant children who are lawfully residing in Florida and otherwise eligible for the KidCare program. Despite passing unanimously in the Senate Health Regulation Committee, the bill died and similar language was never heard in the House.
Department of Health Reorganization
After a three-year effort to revamp the Department of Health (DOH) and institute changes, the House passed Rep. Matt Hudson’s DOH reorganization bill (HB 1263) aimed at creating a more streamlined, efficient agency. An initial version of the bill drew criticism because it shifted many public health responsibilities and thousands of jobs from the state to counties; however, that provision was later removed. Many advocates acknowledge that the final version of this bill no longer does the damage to the DOH it originally did and provides protections for the Children’s Medical Services Network, child protection teams and poison control unit. However, the bill does remove many duties of the state’s surgeon general, including being the leading voice on wellness and disease prevention and promotion of healthy lifestyles.
The Legislature provided full funding for Community-Based Care Core Services, including $16 million in Maintenance Adoption Subsidies. Additional funding for child protection investigators was also provided.
Road to Independence Program
A proposed $11.6 million cut to the Road to Independence program was taken off the table toward the end of session. This program, which provides support for young adults aging out of Florida’s foster care system, will remain available to eligible recipients until age 23 as the measure to limit participation to age 21 was shelved. Rep. Denise Grimsley (R-Sebring) was instrumental in maintaining this appropriation.
Extended Foster Care/Education
SB 434 by Sen. Nan Rich (D-Weston) failed to pass the House after being approved by a 39-0 margin in the Senate. The bill would have tightened oversight of funds for young people aging out of foster care, provided them with education advocates to ensure their money is well-spent, and attempted to keep youth in their original schools when at all possible. It would have also guaranteed that credits would transfer with high school students if it becomes necessary for them to move schools. Furthermore, this bill would have provided that youth turning 18 be given the option to stay in “extended foster care” until the age of 21.
CS/CS/HB 803 by Rep. Jose Felix Diaz (R-Miami) passed the House on a 119-0 vote and the Senate by 39-0. The bill makes substantial changes to various provisions in statutes relating to child abuse, the Florida Abuse Hotline, child protective investigations, and the dependency process. It redesigns the process of child protective services by strengthening the investigation process, streamlining activities and providing a more focused framework for on-going services to be provided. If approved by the Governor, these provisions take effect July 1, 2012.
Specifically, the bill:
Trafficking of Children
Passed by the House during the seventh week of session by a 116-0 vote, CS/CS/HB 99, the “Florida Safe Harbor Act,” by Rep. Erik Fresen (R-Miami) eventually passed the Senate unanimously in the waning days of session. This bill amends definitions relating to abuse and sexual exploitation and requires the DCF to develop guidelines for serving sexually exploited children.
It is intended to provide a more coordinated response to address the child welfare service needs of sexually exploited children who are dependent. Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) played a significant role in getting this legislation passed through the Senate via her companion bill, SB 202. If approved by the Governor, the following provisions will take effect January 1, 2013.
HB 7049 by Rep. Bill Synder (R-Stuart) updates and enhances Florida legislation first passed in 2004 to criminalize human trafficking. Passed unanimously by the Senate and House, the bill has been sent to the Governor. If signed into law, the following provisions will take effect July 1, 2012.
Protection of Vulnerable Persons
CS/CS/CS/HB 1355 sponsored by Rep. Chris Dorworth (R-Heathrow)/SB 1816 by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Wellington) and strongly supported by state attorneys, addresses known or suspected physical, emotional and sexual abuse of a child. It was passed by the House unanimously and by the Senate on a 35-4 vote. The bill, which will go into effect on October 1, 2012 if approved by the Governor, will:
Following three years of cuts to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), the agency will receive a $525.6 million budget for next year, which reflects a very slight increase of 0.07 percent ($345,000). The Department of Corrections – a big target of the Legislature – took a much bigger cut this year losing 5.4 percent ($117 million) next year.
Funding was held harmless for proven prevention programs such as Children and Families in Need of Services (CINS/FINS), Intensive Delinquency Diversion Services (IDDS) and Juvenile Assessment Centers (JACs).
Juvenile Justice Bills
Bills that passed:
HB 5401 expands the definition of detention care to now include alternatives such as respite care. Instead of paying detention costs, counties would be required to pay the costs of respite care. This will provide the state with a net savings of $2 million.
Prekindergarten through Grade 12 Education Funding
HB 5101 requires school districts to provide discretionary local effort funds (up to the state average and/or state compression funding) for all juvenile justice education students. This amounts to additional funding of $100 to $400 per youth depending on the district.
HB 173 allows the DJJ to pay up to $5,000 in funeral expenses for children who die in DJJ custody, and authorizes mother-infant programs.
Bills that failed:
Juvenile Justice Education
HB 949 passed in the House, was amended by the Senate and then died in returning messages on the final day of session. This bill would have improved the accountability and delivery of educational services to students within the DJJ, and created individualized transition plans.
SB 1886 was passed on the Senate floor during the final week of session, but its House companion, HB 1445, never made it out of the House K-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee. This bill would have clarified current law to state that petty acts of misconduct and some misdemeanor offenses are not threats to school safety.
HB 497 passed the House and subsequently died in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. This bill would have allowed minors with certain felony arrests to expunge their non-judicial arrest record upon successful completion of pre- or post-arrest diversion programs.
Parole of Juvenile Offenders
HB 005 passed the House, but then died in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. This bill would have allowed juvenile offenders who were 18 when they committed a non-homicide offense, but who were sentenced to life imprisonment, to be eligible for resentencing if they have been incarcerated for the minimum period.
A comprehensive background screening bill passed both chambers unanimously. Among other things, the bill exempts volunteers, relatives, physicians, nurses and other professionals licensed by the DOH from Level 2 background screenings, and requires LiveScan vendors to meet certain standards. The bill also creates a new, cutting-edge background screening clearinghouse that must be up and running by September 2013. If approved by the Governor, the following provisions take effect upon becoming law: