Few Surprises in Session's First Week
This is the way the legislative session begins: Not with a bang but with a whimper.
There wasn't much surprising about the first week of the legislative session, which opened Tuesday with the normal arrangement of leadoff speeches and Gov. Rick Scott's State of the State address. After that were a couple of drama-less votes on bills that were certain to pass.
But the week also brought some reminders of bills that could still bring some drama to the process: A massive expansion of the state's de facto voucher program and the beginnings of movement on a proposal to legalize medical marijuana --- just not that kind of medical marijuana.
And it was just the start of the 60-day demolition derby that will presumably end on May 2. Plenty of time still remains to cause trouble.
THE STATE OF THE 'LAND OF OPPORTUNITY'
Scott had long laid out most of his agenda in the run-up to the legislative session, and the one new substantive proposal in his annual State of the State address --- a call to repeal the differential tuition law that allows universities to increase their costs by 15 percent a year --- dribbled out in excerpts of the speech released Monday.
But the governor, facing re-election in eight months, used the speech to make progress on two political goals, comparing the state of the Florida economy now to what it looked like in 2010 and highlighting his personal biography in hopes of connecting with an electorate that has never really viewed Scott favorably.
In one of the more personally evocative moments of his speech, Scott brushed away any concerns that he was too narrowly-focused on job-creation and making Florida "the land of opportunity." The governor pointed, as he has only in recent weeks, to his father once losing a job and having the family car repossessed.
"All I can say is that we're all a product of our own experiences in life," Scott said. "I've seen what happens to families who struggle for a job. I've had Christmas without presents. I don't want anybody in our state to ever feel stuck in those situations."
Even some Republicans were surprised by the biographical tales from a governor who has rarely spoken about his own past.
"I'd never heard that side of the governor, and I thought it was very compelling," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
Democrats focused their fire on the other part of Scott's speech, when the governor blasted the record of his predecessor and chief opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist. The Florida Democratic Party once spent much of Crist's term in office issuing similar criticisms of the former Republican's economic woes.
"Floridians heard clearly that Rick Scott only cares about his own re-election," Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said in response to the address. "This speech wasn't about the state of Florida. It was about the state of Rick Scott's campaign, and he is desperate."
Whether Scott's speech will help the effort to reintroduce himself to voters won't really be known until the polls open in November. And Crist is sure to try to rough up the incumbent in return. His campaign issued a statement criticizing the address shortly after Scott delivered it.
"With the blessing of the people, next year I will deliver a State of the State that puts people first," Crist said.
PARTY ON THE FLOOR
The first day's slate of action was confined to bills in the joint House-Senate "work plan" that were certain to gain unanimous, bipartisan support. Those parts of the work plan that would spark partisan food fights, as well as other legislation that could lead to pointed debates, were left for the future.
So, with the mother of a murdered child looking on, the Florida Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed four bills intended to make the state as inhospitable as possible to sexually violent predators.
Diena Thompson, whose 7-year-old daughter Somer disappeared in Clay County in 2009 while walking home from school, watched in tears from the gallery. After an extensive search, the child's body was found in a South Georgia landfill, and last year a 26-year man was sentenced to life in prison for her death.
The legislative package has been at the top of Senate President Don Gaetz's agenda since August, when the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that 594 sexual offenders had gone free since 1999 --- only to commit 463 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.
"We will protect our children and we will scorch the earth against sexually violent predators," said Gaetz, R-Niceville. "We cannot waste one more day. We cannot lose one more child."
The House is expected to take up that package of bills in the next couple of weeks. On Tuesday, it approved the so-called "Florida GI Bill," aimed at encouraging military veterans to take up residence in Florida.
The measure (HB 7015) would increase educational aid for veterans and National Guard members, increase funding to upgrade the state's National Guard facilities and buy land around U.S. military bases. It would also set up a non-profit to attract more veterans to Florida.
The House proposal would cost the state at least $33.5 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The companion to that bill (SB 860) sailed through the Senate Appropriations Committee and headed to the full Senate.
Lawmakers also approved legislation encouraging themselves to take up residence in their own districts, passing a joint rule spelling out some standards for legislators to follow in deciding where they live. The measure passed the Senate on 39-0 vote and flew through the House on a voice vote.
"By, now, putting very clearly in our rules what the residency standards are, if someone were to ever file a complaint, we'd have very clear standards to take that complaint and put (it) up against," Weatherford said.
PENDING: POT AND VOUCHERS
Two of the more intriguing bills that lawmakers could approve during the session took their first steps toward the House floor this week: A measure legalizing non-euphoric marijuana and a sweeping expansion of the state's voucher plan.
While medical marijuana seems to be getting nowhere with the Legislature, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted almost unanimously to sign off on a measure that would legalize a version of the drug that doesn't produce a high --- but can help treat children wracked by potentially deadly seizures.
Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said the vote on the bill allowing "Charlotte's Web" was historic because it's the first time in modern history that the Legislature has advanced any marijuana-related measure.
Peyton and Holley Moseley's 10-year-old adopted daughter RayAnn is one of about 125,000 Florida children diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that can cause hundreds of seizures a day and does not respond to other treatments. The couple said they traveled to Colorado, where Charlotte's Web is manufactured, and met with parents of other children who had responded to the treatment.
"These kids can walk now. These kids can talk now. These kids are saying 'I love you' to their parents for the first time," Peyton Moseley told the panel.
The bill was not without its critics. Some supporters of non-euphoric marijuana said the bill didn't do enough to clear up the legal webs that surround pot. And Rep. Gayle Harrell, who cast the only vote against the measure, asked a series of questions highlighting concerns about a lack of regulation over the substance, especially compared to other drugs.
"If you really want to solve a problem and just not legalize marijuana then you need to do it appropriately," she said.
Meanwhile, the House Finance and Tax Subcommittee voted along party lines to introduce the voucher bill (PCB FTSC 14-02), which would broaden eligibility for the "tax credit scholarships," boost the cap on the program for several years, and allow retailers to divert sales-tax revenue to nonprofit organizations that award the scholarships.
Rep. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican who sponsored the measure, rejected the idea that it was an attack on public education, suggesting that the scholarship program was a part of that system.
"When we're talking about public education, I think we've got the idea a little bit in reverse," he said. "We're talking about educating the kids in the public, not about sustaining public institutions."
Democrats said including sales-tax dollars in the program marked a profound change from a program that has been funded until now through tax credits against corporate income tax and other taxes paid by the businesses.
"Taxpayers have a right to make choices about the way they spend their money," said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach. " ... If you have a person that is opposed to this program and shops at an entity that supports the program, their money, their sales tax dollars that they paid from their pocket, will be used to support a program that they're in opposition to."
STORY OF THE WEEK: The 2014 legislative session began, kicking off a 60-day period when lawmakers are set to approve a spending plan for the state and consider a slate of other measures.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "That's because people here in Tallahassee have realized that we can't just have a bumper-sticker approach to marijuana where you're either for it or against it. Not all marijuana is created equally."--Rep. Matt Gaetz on a proposal to legalize non-euphoric marijuana that can be used to treat seizures in some children.