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Florida lawmakers do about-face on foreign driver's permit requirement

TALLAHASSEE — From election reform to tougher ethics laws to retooling the campaign finance system, the Florida Legislature will spend much of this legislative session undoing many of the problems it has helped cause in recent years.

Almost no piece of legislation epitomizes that sentiment more than the hurried push to repeal a 2012 law that forced foreign tourists to obtain an International Driver's Permit.

HB 7059 is one of several measures that lawmakers are seeking to overturn or walk back since 2010 when the Republican supermajority took the helm of the Legislature in a conservative wave election. After just one committee stop, a bill to repeal the law — which has caused near-pandemonium among Canadian tourists — is expected to be voted out of the House today in an attempt to fast-track it to Gov. Rick Scott's desk to avoid any further damage.

"Oftentimes when we pass legislation, we don't really understand how we could have some unintended consequences with it," said Rep. Daniel Davis, a Jacksonville Republican who is behind the repeal effort.

"In this case, we need to repeal some legislation because it, in effect, has hurt our tourism industry," he said.

A companion bill in the Senate is expected to get its first and only committee hearing Thursday.

Gov. Scott indicated he was ready to sign the repeal at once, stating that the original law he signed last year "made no sense."

Canadian tourists mobilized in opposition when they learned of the 2012 law, which required them to get a new license before they could drive in Florida.

Traditionally, drivers from Canada and other countries could use licenses from their home country when visiting the Sunshine State. Lawmakers toughened the statutes in 2012 after concern that some of those licenses were not written in English but didn't foresee all the problems that would ensue when the law went into effect Jan. 1.

After Canadian journalists wrote about the new requirement, frustrated snowbirds from Toronto and Quebec began calling lawmakers and scrambling to get the new permit, which costs $25 and is valid for a maximum of one year.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said in February that it would not enforce the law because it likely violated an international treaty of the Geneva Convention.

But even as state officials asked law enforcement officials to ignore the new law, some agencies did not get the message.

"Just this past weekend we received word that a tourist was stopped, a Canadian tourist, in Sarasota," said Karen MacFarland, who lobbies for the American Automobile Association. "He didn't have an IDP. He received a fine for $268 and was not allowed to leave until he paid that fine."

The number of Canadian tourists visiting Florida each year has increased from 1.2 million in 2002 to 3.6 million in 2012, making Canada far and away the top market for Florida's international tourism efforts.

The 14 million vacationers who visit Florida from Canada and other countries spend billions of dollars each year, and lawmakers realized quickly that upsetting them with a new driver's license law probably wasn't a good idea.

It's one of several measures that lawmakers are seeking to overturn or walk back since 2010.

"No body of politic is perfect," Davis said. "Whenever we do have unintended consequences or even do make mistakes, we need to make sure we own up to it and address it and make it right."

Contact Toluse Olorunnipa at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.

.Fast facts

Legislative flip-flops

In-state tuition: Florida law currently requires college students born in Florida to pay out-of-state tuition if their parents are illegal immigrants. The Legislature passed on an opportunity to fix the provision last year, and the Florida Supreme Court later ruled it unconstitutional. Undoing the tuition provision is a priority in the Legislature this year.

Funding education: Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature are looking to mend fences with teachers, pitching pay raises after slashing funding for education in 2011. A top priority for Scott is a $2,500 annual pay raise for all teachers in the state.

Election reform: The Legislature reduced the number of early-voting days in 2011 and loaded up the ballot with lengthy amendments, leading to long lines and chaos on Election Day. This year, the Florida House opened its session by backtracking from the 2011 law. Lawmakers are now seeking more early-voting days and shorter amendments.

Campaign finance: The Legislature is responsible for drafting laws that govern how political campaigns are financed, and legal loopholes allow lawmakers to raise virtually unlimited cash through political committees called CCEs. After embarrassing reports of gallivanting politicians, lawmakers have listed eliminating CCEs and cleaning up campaign financing among their top priorities.

Ethics: After several high-ranking lawmakers have left office to become lobbyists for some of the same companies they helped while in office, the Legislature is looking to crack down on questionable ethics moves. A high-priority bill would address the so-called "revolving door" between lobbying and legislating and make other reforms.

FAFSA: In 2011, the Florida Legislature required all students seeking Bright Futures scholarships to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Lawmakers are pushing to repeal that decision this year after it had costly unintended consequences for universities.

Health care: Former House Speaker Dean Cannon told Florida's health care agencies not to make preparations for complying with federal health care reform. Now, agencies and the Legislature are rushing to craft legislation to bring Florida in line with the federal law that was upheld by the Supreme Court last summer.

Florida lawmakers do about-face on foreign driver's permit requirement 03/12/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 10:38pm]
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