Fact-checking Florida’s Legislature at the halfway point

Gov. Rick Scott, right, delivered the 2015 State of the State address March 3, 2015, in Tallahassee. (Scott Keeler / Times)
Gov. Rick Scott, right, delivered the 2015 State of the State address March 3, 2015, in Tallahassee. (Scott Keeler / Times)

We’re at the halfway point in the Florida Legislature’s 60-day session, which ends May 1.

Legislative committees have discussed a long list of issues including whether to allow guns on college campuses, how to change school tests and whether to allow online voter registration and expand Medicaid.

Here’s a look at our fact-checks so far:

Guns on college campuses

House and Senate panels have voted in favor of a proposal that would let concealed weapon license holders -- who must be 21 -- have their guns on college campuses.

That brought  up an interesting comparison: What are students at greater risk for? Being shot or attacked by alligators?

"According to the state of Florida, you are almost twice as likely to be attacked by an alligator than by someone who happens to carry a conceal-and-carry permit, and that was a study over the first 10 years of the conceal-carry law in Florida," said Erek Culbreath, president of Florida Students for Concealed Carry, speaking at a Senate Higher Education Committee hearing on March 16.

Florida’s concealed weapon permit program started in 1987, so Culbreath was referring to 10 years of data starting at that point.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has documented the number of alligator bites on people between 1948 and November 2013 for a total of 357 bites.

The gun data is based on an approximation using permit revocations based on misuse of a firearm that may or may not accurately reflect the number of "attacks." Between October 1987 and February 2015, the state revoked 9,636 concealed weapon or firearm license permits, according to state. Of that group, 168 were revoked for misuse of a firearm. However, in 2011 the state stopped providing a breakdown for the reasons that permits have been revoked.

These statistics, imperfect as they are, do support the notion that both kinds of attacks are uncommon. But it’s a stretch to say the evidence confirms you’re at twice the risk for a gator attack. We find the statement has an element of truth but ignores other information that would give a different impression. So we rate it Mostly False.

School tests

The Legislature has faced a backlash from teachers and parents over the amount of standardized tests it puts students through.

The Florida Badass Teachers Association leveled this attack before the session: Florida students take "an array of standardized high stakes tests which eat up as much as 45 school days per year."

Test days do appear to have risen in recent years, and students are not only affected by the tests they take themselves, but also by the impact of other students in their school taking tests. However, pinpointing the number of days that students take standardized tests is difficult, because it varies widely depending by grade, school, district and other factors. We rated this claim False.

Meanwhile, on day 1 of new computerized standardized tests, students and administrators across the state couldn’t log on to the tests.

During a House Education Appropriations Committee meeting March 12, chairwoman and state Rep. H. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, put the blame solely on the cyber attack.

"On the testing problems, many of you may have read in the media, that the problem was not that of a vendor, the problem was not that of the test materials itself, it was the product of a cyber attack," she said.

Actually, a vendor update was responsible for the initial problems that kept students from logging onto the new testing system. The cyber attack was another problem that happened later in the week. O’Toole admitted she misspoke. We rated this claim Mostly False.

Online voter registration

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, sponsored a bill to allow online voter registration. "This is actually just simply a more secure, accurate and cost-efficient way of doing voter registration," he said at a Senate Ethics and Elections committee hearing Jan. 20.

Experts who study online registration say there have been no reports of actual security breaches or fraud. If designed in a way to account for security, online registration reduces opportunities for fraud and errors.

However, experts warned that both online and paper systems can have potential pitfalls. We rated this claim Mostly True.

(Clemens’ bill is scheduled to be heard by a subcommittee April 2.)

Craft beer expansion

The Senate is revisiting whether to allow Florida’s craft brewers to sell their wares in 64-ounce growlers, the most common size nationally for consumers to take home suds straight from the tap.

Susan Pitman, a board member for a collection of drug abuse prevention groups called the Florida Coalition Alliance, didn’t take issue with the size of growlers while testifying in a Senate committee about SB 186, but she did ask lawmakers to consider regulating pour sizes in beer-tasting rooms. She said breweries needed limits to help prevent alcohol abuse. (Bill sponsor Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, agreed to consider her suggestions.) She said Florida has made good progress on reducing alcohol abuse, and it should be careful not to go backwards.

"While the country as a whole has seen a decline in youth drinking, the state of Florida is a leader, with double-digit drops in 30-day teen alcohol use," she said.

Regular surveys show there has been a steady decline in alcohol abuse by teens according to several measurements, including whether young people had tried a drink within the last 30 days. It’s difficult to make exact comparisons between national and state numbers, but a Florida survey shows double-digit drops for both middle- and high-schoolers over the last decade.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a decline of about 8 percentage points among high-schoolers in the same period, but reached double digits when we went back just a little further.

We rated Pitman’s statement Mostly True.