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Florida House Democrats Vow To Oppose GOP Education Priority, Fight Anti-Union Language

Jessica Bakeman
House Democratic leader Kionne McGhee of Miami speaks at a news conference at the Capitol on Jan. 30. Rep. Shevin Jones of West Park and Fedrick Ingram, the former president of the United Teachers of Dade, joined him for the event.

Democrats in the state House of Representatives are employing a more aggressive strategy in fighting Republicans’ education priorities this year after they felt like they got burned by the chamber’s GOP leadership during the last legislative session.

House Democratic leader-designate Kionne McGhee of Miami and his colleagues, including other leaders from South Florida, held a Capitol news conference Tuesday to denounce a new GOP-supported education bill that surfaced last week. House Bill 7055 has been fast-tracked, with a new, nearly 200-page version slated to be considered by the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

“This is the bill that we, as a caucus, will take a stance against,” McGhee said during the news conference, “because this is something that will crack the foundation of our educational system as we currently know it.”

McGhee's early announcement that House Democrats will oppose the priority GOP legislation is a markedly different strategy than last year. During the 2017 legislative session, Democrats tried to negotiate with Republicans for a compromise on House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s education priorities until the very end of session.

Democrats were surprised when Corcoran rolled out the controversial charter school law, House Bill 7069, which was nearly 300 pages long when it was made public at the last minute. The legislation included several provisions Democrats said they had  fought against vehemently during closed-door talks.

Still, Republican leaders worked to win the votes of black Democrats in the House, an effort that was almost wholly unsuccessful. Rep. Roy Hardemon of Miami was the only Democrat in the Legislature to vote for the bill.

This year, Democrats are coming out against House Bill 7055 — which McGhee called “7069 on steroids” — while the Legislature is still in the early stages of negotiating the state budget and major legislation. The session is scheduled to end on March 9.

Democrats are especially incensed about a new proposed version of House Bill 7055 that includes a provision targeting teachers’ unions.

The conservative, labor-hostile House recently passed House Bill 25, which would require unions to apply for recertification if their annual reports show that fewer than half of their members are paying dues. (Florida is a right-to-work state, so employees don’t have to pay dues to unions in order to reap the benefits of collective bargaining.)

The bill isn’t likely to move in the Senate. So House Republicans appear to have resurrected it in House Bill 7055, this time targeting only teachers’ unions rather than a broader swath of public employee labor organizations.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from West Park, said he will soon meet with House Education Committee chair Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican, to discuss his proposed amendments to the bill. Chiefly, Jones wants to remove the provisions dealing with unions.

But Jones expects his state budget priorities might suffer because he’s speaking out against Republican leaders’ legislation.

Referring to House Republicans, he said during the press conference: “You cannot continue to say, ‘We have the majority. We can do what we want.' We are going to make some noise.

“If you don't want to give me anything in the budget, I'm OK with that. Because at the expense of our children, the price is too great,” he said.

Among other provisions, House Bill 7055 includes a new scholarship to cover tutoring for third graders who fail state reading tests and stronger accountability measures for private schools that accept state-funded vouchers.

During a committee meeting last week, Bileca said the bill was a work in progress and indicated he would be willing to meet with Democrats over “coffee and doughnuts” to discuss potential changes.

“Did we get all the language perfect? Probably not,” he said. “Are we open to looking at it so we get it — I wouldn’t say perfect, but —in a satisfying way? Absolutely.”