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Weekly Roundup: Opportunity Knocks

February 12, 2015 - 6:00pm

Politics and governing can provide opportunities -- some that are seized and some that are not. Much of the news this week seemed to fall somewhere on that spectrum.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush tried to turn his governing into a political opportunity, returning to the city where he served as governor for eight years to promote his brand of education reform as he eyes a bid for the White House in 2016. That came the day after a judge heard arguments about whether a coalition of education groups should have the opportunity to try to get one of Bush's hallmark policies struck down.

Meanwhile, opportunities for help with stadium projects took a possible hit from House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, while those for a more widespread form of medical marijuana being allowed in Florida weren't quite as high after comments from a key senator.

More tragically, it turned out there were opportunities for workers in the state's child-welfare system to potentially prevent the death of a 5-year-old girl.

Some opportunities, when missed, end up being costlier than others.


If there's one policy issue that could serve as Bush's biggest asset and liability in his run for the presidency, it's his background as an education reformer while in the governor's office. Some of the former governor's initiatives could play well with the conservative base, including a de facto voucher system and an emphasis on accountability for public schools.

But Bush's support of the Common Core standards has contributed to a backlash against him, so much so that the words "Common Core" didn't cross his lips at an education summit Tuesday in Tallahassee and didn't come up at a meeting with current Gov. Rick Scott.

"The standards are still high, which is really the thing that most matters," Bush told reporters before leaving the summit.

Democrats were already trying to chip away at Bush's image on education. In a statement, Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant slammed the summit as "nothing more than a cheerleading session with right wing politicians and wealthy special interests looking to turn a profit on our children's education."

Bush got in some of his own licks against old foes. He blasted a legal challenge, led by the Florida Education Association teachers' union, to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides tax credits to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities that pay for children to go to private schools. Bush said public schools have improved since the voucher-like system was approved.

"If the data matter, then they wouldn't be suing. ... I don't get the argument on the other side, except for the fact that this is about the economic interests of the adults," he said.

That came a day after Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds III listened to lawyers from the state argue that the teachers' union and others behind the challenge to the program don't have the required legal standing to sue.

Reynolds didn't seem sympathetic to the argument from those opposed to the scholarships that the program siphons state tax revenues that would otherwise be used to increase funding for public schools. The counterpoint is that the dollars might be spent on other things.

"I agree that the nexus here is troublesome," Reynolds said near the end of the hearing. "And that's their problem, and that's going to be their burden on this speculation that schools would do better if this program didn't exist. You could do away with this program tomorrow morning, and the budget for the school system might change not one iota."

Supporters of the lawsuit urged Reynolds to consider the fact that education funding is handed out to school districts based on the number of students that attend their schools.

"It's because the state has set up a program that results in students leaving the public schools with these vouchers to go to private schools, and as a direct result of the students leaving the public schools, automatically, necessarily, under the Florida Education Finance Program funding formula, the funding for these public schools necessarily goes down," said attorney John West.


There might be a lot of time left in the legislative game at the state Capitol -- in some ways, the clock hasn't even started -- but things are already looking questionable for four sports projects seeking a bundle of sales-tax dollars. A new process was set up last year to try to bring order to the frenetic lobbying efforts to get funding for stadiums, but it's been ensnared in debates about project rankings.

Crisafulli floated an idea for resolving the issue: Simply don't approve any projects.

"It's possible. I mean it's very possible, but I can't tell you for sure," the Merritt Island Republican said during an interview Wednesday with The News Service of Florida.

The Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research issued a ranking of stadium projects, with an Orlando soccer stadium at the top of the list. That was followed by a proposal for EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Sun Life Stadium in Miami-Dade County and Daytona International Speedway. Speedway officials were quick to note they would voice their objections to lawmakers about landing in the fourth position.

But Senate President Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican who defended the top ranking for the soccer stadium, said Thursday he wants the members of the Joint Legislative Budget Commission to "have an up-or-down discussion on those projects."

The issue should come to a head next week, when the commission, comprised of members of the House and Senate, meets to discuss several issues -- including the sports projects.

Up-or-down votes could be more elusive for proposals by two Republican lawmakers to legalize medical marijuana. That legislation seems to have a slim chance of passing this legislative session, based on the comments of a Senate committee chairman who helps control the fate of that chamber's measure.

The much-discussed idea once again found itself in the bloodstream of Capitol chatter after Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, filed a bill that would expand Florida's limited medical marijuana law, approved last year but yet to be implemented.

Steube's proposal (HB 683) would allow doctors to order medical marijuana for patients with certain conditions but would not allow the pot to be smoked, a concession to the Florida Sheriffs Association, which came out in opposition to a similar bill (SB 528) released two weeks ago by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

Both proposals would allow doctors to order medical marijuana for patients diagnosed with certain conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease and Crohn's disease. But, unlike the Senate plan, Steube's bill would not give doctors the leeway to order the pot for symptoms such as chronic pain or nausea.

Brandes' proposal is slated to be considered first by the Senate Regulated Industries Committee. But Chairman Rob Bradley, who sponsored the limited marijuana measure (SB 1030) last year, looks to be playing the role of buzzkill.

"I'm of the school of thought that we need to allow this issue to naturally unfold by making sure that we crawl before we walk and walk before we run," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday. "I want to see 1030 (last year's measure) get implemented. And then let's see what works and what doesn't with regard to the bill that we've already passed."


What appears clear now is that state authorities had chances to help 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck's family, or at least intervene in the final days of her life -- and didn't do enough, according to a report released Monday by the Department of Children and Families.

In particular, the state abuse hotline did not act on two final calls on Dec. 29 and Jan. 7 -- the last one coming less than a day before John Jonchuck was accused of dropping his daughter from a bridge into Tampa Bay.

Nor was the family referred for intervention services in 2013, when the hotline accepted a call about an earlier threat to Phoebe.

The report was the work of the Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, which Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll sent to Tampa to investigate after the girl drowned Jan. 8.

As has been widely reported, the Jan. 7 call was made by John Jonchuck's lawyer, who warned that Jonchuck was "driving all over town in his pajamas with Phoebe" and "seems depressed and delusional." It was not investigated -- and according to the report, "the counselor did not consult with a supervisor."

Following the girl's death, Carroll changed a hotline protocol to require an immediate response when a case involves a potential mental-health crisis.

The new report also revealed that on Dec. 29, a call "alleged past harm to Phoebe and current concerns regarding her living arrangements." In addition, on Jan. 8, the Hillsborough County sheriff's office had an open child-welfare investigation related to the girl's mother, Michelle Kerr, and allegations of family violence, inadequate supervision and substance abuse, the report said.

The Dec. 29 call wasn't investigated. The hotline counselor who took that call "informed the caller that the report was being investigated, but then terminated the call before verifying the address that had been given for Mr. Jonchuck."

Additionally, the report found that in 2013, the hotline accepted a call about the Jonchucks, warning that "family violence threatens (the) child" -- but that the Hillsborough sheriff's office, which conducted the investigation, did not refer the family for services that could have reduced the risk to Phoebe.

"The investigation initiated on June 7, 2013, should have resulted in a referral for services," the report found. "The belief that the separation of the parents had remediated the primary safety threats for the family significantly impacted the direction of the investigation, while insufficient examination or interpretation of family functioning or lack of follow-up contributed to the investigation being closed without services in place."

Meanwhile, experts say a history of stalking, battery and domestic-violence arrests involving John Jonchuck should have disqualified him as Phoebe's custodial parent. The report showed that John Jonchuck's background includes a number of arrests for domestic violence, battery and stalking -- in incidents involving Phoebe's mother, his own mother and two other women. The report also pointed to allegations against Phoebe's mother.

"They never should have given the dad custody of this child," said Linda Osmundson, executive director of Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA), a battered-women's shelter in St. Petersburg. "It was a preventable death."

STORY OF THE WEEK: Former Gov. Jeb Bush returned to Tallahassee for a pair of events amid increasing speculation that he would run for president. Bush also held a fundraiser in New York City and released the first chapter of a book chronicling his time as governor through emails he sent and received while in office.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "It's not even full season yet, and the roads are crowded. We can't get in restaurants in our towns. Do we have a point of diminishing returns? If we have 93 million (annual visitors) now, I'm hesitant to want 100 million today." -- Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, during a discussion of tourism funding.

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