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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.

Key issues in the 2014 session

Child protection

A major overhaul of Florida's child welfare laws seeks to tighten the safety net for children at risk of abuse and neglect; longer mandatory sentences for child sexual predators; greater protections for children exploited by human trafficking.

Consumers

Three sales tax holidays will save consumers a little money on purchases of storm supplies, energy-saving appliances and back-to-school items, and parasailing operators must be licensed and will not be allowed to operate near airports or during severe weather.

Education

Undocumented students will be able to pay in-state tuition at Florida colleges and universities; expansion of the tax credit scholarship program that provides private school vouchers to children in low-income families; creation of personal learning accounts to reimburse parents of special needs children for expenses.

Environment

Increased Everglades restoration funding to $169 million, more than double last year's total, and earmarked $90 million for raising 2.6 miles of the Tamiami Trail to let the River of Grass flow more freely beneath it. A plan to restore Florida's ailing springs won Senate passage but faltered in the House.

Gambling

Lawmakers folded their hand as the governor asked them to postpone an effort to rewrite the state's gambling laws while he negotiated a compact with the Seminole Tribe. The governor then hinted he was getting close, and asked if there was any interest in a special session to ratify a compact, but when he offered no details, he got no interest.

Health care

Banned abortions of fetuses considered medically viable, which is a few weeks stricter than the current third-trimester ban; criminalized harming a fetus during a crime; delayed for another year a new Medicaid funding formula opposed by safety net hospitals.

Insurance

New homeowner bill of rights will better inform policyholders of their rights and responsibilities when filing claims; private insurers will be encouraged to sell flood insurance in Florida, a state that is home to 37 percent of the country's flood insurance policies.

Public records

Several new exemptions to public records laws will shield motor vehicle crash reports, names of family members of public defenders and state boxing commission records. Lawmakers did not pass a bill that would have codified recent court decisions, including limits on charges for copies and making it clear that records requests need not be made in writing.

Public safety

Opening of three inmate re-entry centers and five work camps to handle a rising prison population; inmates will get ID cards upon release to help them readjust to society and find jobs.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Highlights of the 2014-15 state budget

. $77.1 billion total, a 3.5 percent increase over this year's budget.

. No pay raises for state employees except for those working in criminal justice and courts. A 5 percent across-the-board increase for sworn officers in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Florida Highway Patrol and for special agents, at a cost of $11 million. In addition, pay increases costing $10.9 million for assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders.

. The $20 billion education budget includes about $11 billion for public schools. K-12 funding will be $6,937.23 per student — an increase of $176.14, or 2.6 percent, over last year.

. $25 million for springs restoration (plus $1.7 million for springs monitoring that could be used for restoration).

. $40.6 million for Everglades restoration, plus another $80 million for the Save Our Everglades Trust on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee.

. $3.1 billion set aside for reserves.

. $200 million for state university performance funding.

. $500,000 for a study to determine the future of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.

. No tuition increases for state colleges and universities, but the two pre-eminent universities, Florida State University and University of Florida, will each receive $20 million above their base funding rate.

. Monthly "personal needs allowance" for Medicaid patients in nursing homes increases from $35 to $105.

Michael Van Sickler, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Florida Legislature adjourns 2014 session, approving medical marijuana strain and immigrant tuition 05/02/14 [Last modified: Saturday, May 3, 2014 11:51am]

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