TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature has passed the halfway point of its 60-day legislative session and the fruits of its labor can be summed up in two words: election year.
With Gov. Rick Scott struggling in the polls as he seeks a second term in November, the Republican-led Legislature has worked to send him bills to bolster his image while avoiding issues that could complicate the governor's political prospects.
In one month, lawmakers swiftly passed a repeal of the 2009 auto tag fee that will save most drivers $25 a year and touted it as the largest general revenue tax reduction in a decade. They enacted tuition credits for returning military in an effort to make the state friendly for veterans. They strengthened penalties for perpetrators of sex crimes in response to newspaper reports on repeat sex offenders.
And, in one of many bills pushed by the National Rifle Association, they sent the governor a measure on Thursday to allow people to fire warning shots in self defense.
Before the session began, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said his goal was to help Scott "put points on the board" by passing popular legislation.
Last week, Weatherford declared that the goal is "not to worry about elections this session. We're here to do what we think is right."
Despite those claims, Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers, have a different take.
"We think the total focus of this session is about the governor's race,'' said House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston of Plantation.
With $1.3 billion in additional revenue this budget year, lawmakers have divvied it into many legislative pet projects "so no one can complain," he said. "If you don't think about the true needs of the state, everything is okay, but when you go into the districts and ask people if it's okay, they'll tell you that it's not."
Lawmakers are on schedule to approve the bulk of the modest legislative agenda the governor laid out at the onset of the session.
The House and Senate each passed versions of a $75 billion spending plan last week that includes a total of $500 million in tax breaks, per the governor's request, and increases total funding to public schools to historic amounts. Both the House and Senate exceed the governor's school funding request, however, but fall short of the all-time per pupil funding of $7,126 in 2006-07.
"I couldn't be more proud of the job that he did,'' Weatherford said of the governor's agenda, after the House voted out its budget.
The election-year session has also led to early casualties for controversial bills.
A massive bill to rewrite the state's gambling laws, which would open the door to casino expansion in South Florida, was declared dead by legislative leaders on Thursday.
Lawmakers said they couldn't advance the bill until the governor completed negotiations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida over provisions of a gaming compact that expire next year. But few believe the governor has pursued those talks with vigor and, while pollsters show that gambling expansion is popular in most of the state, it remains a divisive issue for conservative Republicans in an election year.
For the first time in years, legislators also decided not to tinker with Florida's election laws in an election year.
That aggravates Sen. Jack Latvala. The Clearwater Republican who chairs the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee wanted to prohibit his hometown elections supervisor, Pinellas' Deborah Clark, from using remote dropoff sites for voters to deliver absentee ballots. He also wanted to advance a Democratic proposal to allow for online voter registration in Florida, as 19 other states do.
But after drawing national attention for changes to voting laws in 2010 and 2012, and having other provisions challenged in court, Weatherford decided early that legislators weren't going to rewrite the voting laws, so the Senate measures haven't gotten a hearing in the House.
"I'm not sure anyone has made a compelling argument that we need to have an elections bill," Weatherford said last week. "We made radical changes to our election laws last year, and we want to give our supervisors time to implement those changes."
The fuel that fires the election campaigns of the governor and legislators is campaign contributions. For the first time, lawmakers were required to report how much they collected from special interest groups before session began.
A Times/Herald review has found that many of the industries that have some of the largest donations have also been the beneficiaries of decisions to expedite or stall legislation. Among them:
• Trauma centers. Legislation to protect three trauma centers run by the Hospital Corporation of America from a court challenge continues to advance in both chambers. The company contributed $1.7 million in campaign contributions in the 2014 election cycle.
• Nursing homes. The Senate has passed a bill shielding nursing home investors from some lawsuits by targeting the tactics of Jim Wilkes' Tampa law firm. The industry has spent $903,000 on legislative campaigns so far this cycle and the House is expected to pass it.
• Charter schools. The House budget sets aside $100 million for capital expenses for the privately-managed, for-profit charter schools — twice the amount earmarked for traditional public schools. The charter school industry has given $215,000 to state level political committees this election cycle, including $75,00 to the governor and $10,000 to Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the Senate education budget committee chairman.
• Energy. The House has blocked two measures opposed by the state's large electric utilities: a constitutional amendment for the November ballot that would give tax breaks to businesses that install solar panels and a precedent-setting proposal to allow water customers to petition state regulators to require compliance with state standards. The state's four largest electric companies have spent more than $3 million on campaign contributions this election cycle.
• Craft brewers. A bill to force craft brewers to sell their bottled and canned beer directly to a distributor is moving in the Senate. Senate President Don Gaetz told reporters that he supports the bill because it is the priority of his best friend, Anheuser-Busch InBev distributor Lewis Bear. Bear's company has given more than $260,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $31,000 to Scott's campaign committee, the Associated Press reported.
• Dental HMOs. A bill to take away $200 million in children's dental services from the Medicaid HMOs and preserve the state contract for Miami-based MCNA is advancing in the House. The company gave more than $355,000 to the political committees of Republican legislators and the Republican Party in the last seven months.
Legislators have also advanced a handful of bills that do not have monied interests behind them but have leadership support.
A Miami Herald series about the death of 477 children whose families had prior contact with the Florida Department of Children and Families within the last five years prompted both chambers to draft sweeping new reforms aimed at improving the state's child welfare system.
Legislators are also making it easier for prison inmates released from prison to adjust to society by providing them with free ID cards upon their release. And lawmakers are poised to pass a bill that eliminates minimum mandatory sentences for some non-violent drug abusers.
"This is going to be one of the most significant years for criminal justice policy that we've seen for a while in Tallahassee," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former prosecutor who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee for civil and criminal justice.
One bill that has broad public support but could fall victim to election-year politics is a proposal to allow for the distribution of a non-euphoric strain of marijuana in Florida to help children with intractable epilepsy. The bill is stalled in the House Judiciary Committee.
"There are some who believe that if we were to endorse marijuana in any form even a non-euphoric form that it would buttress either Charlie Crist's campaign, or damage Rick Scott's campaign,'' said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the bill's sponsor. "It's a flawed view and it's the reason some people are using to oppose the bill — which is absurd.''
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas. Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org.