Report on Feb 9, 2015 Court Hearing

The issue before the court in my lay person’s was precisely this: If the court finds that teachers, school administrators, parents, students and taxpayers have no standing to challenge the legislature’s indirect funding of Florida’s Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship program, who in the state of Florida does?

In Leon County Court yesterday appearing before County Circuit Judge George Reynolds III, the state and intervenors argued that because corporate tax payments are diverted before they enter state tax coffers the money is “exempt” from other regulation or compliance with constitutional restrictions. Their argument was that tax credits issued to corporations that elect to contribute to the FTC program are the same as other contributions to 501 c-3 entities and therefore opening the program up to scrutiny would extend the issue to ALL 501 c-3 contributions.
The judge summarized their argument by stating that “the money never became public” so taxpayers have no standing. The defendants also argued that just because funds are paid into the treasury or are due the treasury it does not follow that all or a specific portion of that money would flow through to public schools. Therefore there was no special injury. In fact, they argued that by sending students to private schools at a lesser cost the state benefitted from the program and school districts had lower costs.
The plaintiffs (the LWV of Florida is joined as a plaintiff) argued, that the state cannot do indirectly what it is constrained from doing directly referring to the FL Supreme Court decision of 2006 in Bush v. Holmes that found Opportunity Scholarships unconstitutional. While it was evident that the judge was eager to argue the merits of the case, the hearing was to establish standing for the plaintiffs and the merits were not relevant at this time. Ron Meyer and John West for the plaintiffs kept following the train of funding through to public schools related to the reduction in students enrolled and diverted through the FTC program. It was a difficult argument to make because funding fluctuates and is an established purview of the legislature.
The judge summarized their case by comparing the issue to a fuel truck with a load of fuel, but the truck was diverted prior to delivery thereby depriving the initial recipient of fuel. Once again the judge showed a desire to get into the merits, but, of course, the standing of the plaintiffs must be established.
One other issue that seemed to give the judge pause was his prior decision of several weeks earlier granting standing to the case represented by the Southern Legal Counsel titled Citizens for Strong Schools v. DOE. The LWV of Florida had contemplated joining as plaintiff, but the judge determined that the timing was too late and no additional interest was served. The third suit wherein, Judge Francis had found no standing was Faase v. Legislature and this case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled. Judge Reynolds will have to reconcile these competing opinions and actions in his final ruling.
Judge Reynolds directed attorneys for both sides to draft a final order favoring their case within ten days for his final review. This is a common approach in a case of this type. There was no indication of how he might decide or a final date given.
The audience was comprised of many interested parties. Teachers, college students, parents, children, league members, P.T. A. representative, Neil Chonin and Jodi Seigel from the Southern Legal Counsel, NAACP, Florida School Boards Assoc., and the list goes on. We will continue to follow and post information on this topic.

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