Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Politics

Florida Legislature adjourns 2014 session, approving medical marijuana strain and immigrant tuition

TALLAHASSEE

Florida lawmakers adjourned their 2014 election-year session late Friday, approving in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, legalizing a strain of marijuana for limited medical use and expanding corporate tax credits that allow poor children to go to private schools.

They also overhauled child protection laws, allowed a noncitizen to practice law, banned sales of e-cigarettes to minors and set up a pecking order for sales tax rebates for sports stadiums, including a possible major league soccer arena in Miami.

In a session aimed at shoring up Gov. Rick Scott's re-election prospects, Republicans stayed on course. They rolled back car tag fees, pumped more money into public education and used the immigrant tuition issue to appeal to disaffected Hispanics whose votes are vital to Scott's political future.

As the night dragged on and lawmakers sipped from white plastic foam cups, they adopted a $77.1 billion budget — the largest in state history. It's fortified by more than $1.2 billion in extra sales tax revenue from a surging economy that will increase school spending by 2.6 percent next year.

"This has been a great year for public schools," said Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

The budget spends $18.9 billion on public schools, the most ever and an increase of $176 per student, to $6,937. That's still below the record 2008 level of $7,126 per pupil.

The surge in new tax revenue also left room for $3 billion in unspent reserves and $500 million in tax and fee cuts, including consumer-friendly sales tax holidays for hurricane supplies, back-to-school items and clean-energy appliances. But lawmakers couldn't find any money to give state workers a pay increase other than law enforcement officers, who will get 5 percent.

The House passed the budget by a vote of 102-15, and the Senate followed with a 40-0 vote. Sine Die came at 10:40 p.m.

Scott joined legislators in the Capitol Rotunda for a traditional end-of-session celebration with a cheering crowd of about 200 people.

"Today is a great victory for Florida families," Scott said. "We have had four great years."

The session of 2014 may be remembered as the year that the conservative Legislature underwent a major shift in its philosophy on immigration and medical marijuana. Republican legislative leaders also worked to steer clear of controversy in the election year.

That's why, for the second year in a row, the session ended with no changes to a retirement system for hundreds of thousands of public employees. The biggest shift would have been for new entrants into 401(k)-style investment plans.

Some Republican lawmakers are unenthusiastic about Scott, but they will be on the ballot together, and the governor's race is unpredictable. Scott's likely challenger is Democrat Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor.

In the session's final two days, Scott repeatedly criticized Crist by name.

After the House passed the immigrant tuition bill Friday, a triumphant Scott appeared in front of TV cameras and blasted Crist, who had opposed in-state tuition for immigrants but now supports it.

"We're righting the wrongs of Charlie Crist," said Scott, who earlier opposed in-state tuition.

Asked to explain his about-face, Scott said: "There's a difference between talk versus action. We've taken action." He noted that college tuition for all students won't go up next year.

The budget headed to Scott's desk has hundreds of millions of dollars in projects in lawmakers' districts. Crist challenged Scott to veto it and call lawmakers back in a special session and demand that it be given to public schools.

Scott can't veto a lot of line-item spending without making Republicans look like spendthrifts. That would create dissension in a year when Scott needs their help on the campaign trail — and besides, lawmakers were deferential to Scott this session.

"We've been very good to the governor this year," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "If you look at the priorities he's had, we've delivered on all of them."

If the 2014 session had a pivotal moment, it occurred two weeks ago when the immigrant tuition bill was losing momentum. Even though it had easily passed the House, Senate Republican leaders were blocking a vote.

But two former Republican governors, Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush, issued a joint statement with Scott on April 18 to urge passage of the bill. The statement was an acknowledgement that Scott lacked the political muscle to get the bill passed by himself, but it worked.

"The governor called and asked if I would consider adding my voice," said Martinez, the state's first Hispanic governor from 1987 to 1991, and a former mayor of Tampa who sagely predicted two weeks ago: "It's never over until it's over."

Bush, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, served two terms from 1999-2007 and remains a revered figure among Florida Republicans. On Friday, he said: "Florida succeeded in doing what the federal government has failed to do: take real steps to address our nation's serious immigration challenges."

The House reapproved the immigrant tuition bill 84-32 on Friday after killing an amendment by Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando that would let undocumented immigrants receive Florida driver's licenses — an idea Bush championed unsuccessfully a decade ago.

Rep. Jeannette Nunez, R-Miami, sponsor of the immigrant tuition bill, HB 851, warned that major changes on the last day would need Senate review and could jeopardize chances of passage. Nunez and a bipartisan House coalition defeated the amendment.

For Democrats, the session was largely an exercise in frustration as the GOP majority ignored their ideas, such as raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and allowing people to register to vote online, as 19 states already do.

"There's a lot of unfinished business," said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, the House Democratic leader. "We're going to get out of here and pat ourselves on the back when there's really a lot more to be done."

One of the most high-profile issues of the session, HCA's effort to win protection for three contested trauma centers in Pasco, Manatee and Marion counties, fell flat at the last minute despite the for-profit hospital giant's intense lobbying efforts.

Democrats said the Republicans' signature failure was their refusal for the second straight year to consider an expansion of Medicaid in a state that ranks second only to Texas in the number of people with no health insurance.

As the last day of lawmaking got under way, a group of clergy, single moms and others issued a last-minute call for action, but the issue was dead before the session began.

"The Legislature turned its back on those who work hard but cannot afford proper health care," said the Rev. Brant Copeland, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. "We're not going to forget. We think the Legislature can do better."

Times/Herald staff writers Kathleen McGrory and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

     
 
Comments
Tax package would lower top tax rate for wealthy Americans

Tax package would lower top tax rate for wealthy Americans

WASHINGTON ó Congressional Republicans on Tuesday rushed toward a deal on a massive tax package that would reduce the top tax rate for wealthy Americans to 37 percent and slash the corporate rate to a level slightly higher than what businesses and co...
Updated: 23 minutes ago
Trump signs $700 billion military budget into law

Trump signs $700 billion military budget into law

WASHINGTON ó President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed into law a sweeping defense policy bill that authorizes a $700 billion budget for the military, including additional spending on missile defense programs to counter North Koreaís growing nuclear w...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Donald Trump Jr. demands inquiry of House Intelligence Committee leak

Donald Trump Jr. demands inquiry of House Intelligence Committee leak

WASHINGTON ó Donald Trump Jr., the presidentís eldest son, has asked the House Intelligence Committee to open an investigation into leaked information related to his closed interview with the committee last week."To maintain the credibility of the in...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Original Watergate lock that burglars picked open is going to auction

Original Watergate lock that burglars picked open is going to auction

WASHINGTON -ó Itís the lock that launched a two-year investigation and took down a president. And now more than four decades later ó and for a starting bid of $50,000 ó it can be a really wonky conversation piece.Nate D. Sanders Auctions will auction...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Democrats say Trumpís tweets about Gillibrand sexist, unsavory

Democrats say Trumpís tweets about Gillibrand sexist, unsavory

WASHINGTON ó Plowing into the sexual harassment debate in a big way, President Donald Trump laced into Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Tuesday, tweeting that the New York Democrat would come to his office "begging" for campaign contributions and "do anyth...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Obama, Biden and Trump make late pushes in Alabama Senate race

Obama, Biden and Trump make late pushes in Alabama Senate race

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. ó National political leaders, a Hollywood actress and a retired basketball star made last-ditch efforts to woo voters in the Alabama Senate race Monday, as the candidates gave their final arguments in a pivotal special election that ...
Published: 12/12/17
PolitiFact: Looking back at the Trump teamís falsehoods of 2017

PolitiFact: Looking back at the Trump teamís falsehoods of 2017

President Donald Trump made many inaccurate statements in 2017. His White House team seems to be following in his footsteps when defending him. Some of Trumpís staffers have made the argument that it is valid to use inaccurate facts to bolster larger...
Published: 12/11/17
Updated: 12/12/17
PolitiFact: Notable misstatements about Donald Trump from 2017

PolitiFact: Notable misstatements about Donald Trump from 2017

President Donald Trump’s words can be at odds with reality, a fact we’ve documented again and again during his first year in office. His claim that the Trump-Russia investigation is a "made-up story" earned Trump our 2017 Lie of the Year....
Published: 12/11/17
Updated: 12/12/17
Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority plays beat the clock on GOP tax bill

Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority plays beat the clock on GOP tax bill

TAMPA ó With the Republican tax bill poised to eliminate the opportunity, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority on Monday said it had refinanced a big chunk of its debt to save money in the future.The authority borrowed $152 million from the bo...
Published: 12/11/17
Alabama Senate race, unlikely nail biter, races to finish line

Alabama Senate race, unlikely nail biter, races to finish line

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. ó In a blur of television ads, conflicting polls and presidential tweets, Doug Jones and Roy Moore raced Monday to make their final pleas in Alabamaís special election for the Senate, with both candidates focused on turning out their...
Published: 12/11/17