They created a state poet laureate, honored the Florida State University football champions and snapped selfies with soccer star David Beckham. They opened the flood insurance market, closed public records and got tougher on sexual predators. They loosened gun laws, tightened abortion restrictions and raised the highway speed limit.
The Florida Legislature's annual session that ended Friday night will not be remembered as ambitious or visionary. Efforts to tackle big issues such as gambling and public employee pension reform collapsed. Other broad public policy concerns such as tax reform, renewable energy and water resources once again were ignored. Those are all issues that a more engaged governor and a more enlightened Legislature will have to tackle for Florida to prosper in the 21st century.
Instead, the Republican-led Legislature focused on appealing to conservative voters and avoiding controversy in a year when unpopular Republican Gov. Rick Scott is seeking re-election. The governor won his $500 million in tax breaks, including the repeal of motor vehicle fee increases signed into law during the economic recession by his predecessor and likely November opponent, Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. He is expected to sign into law protections for firing warning shots that were endorsed by the National Rifle Association and new restrictions on abortion sought by abortion rights opponents. With more than $1.2 billion in additional revenue, the governor also will be able to boast about a $77 billion budget that will finally increase per student spending above where it was when he took office.
The Legislature's most far-reaching move was to finally allow undocumented Florida high school students to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. That will make Florida the 20th state to recognize a public investment already has been made in these young people, who will contribute even more to their communities if they can afford to attend college.
In another nod to evolving public attitudes, the Legislature voted to legalize a marijuana strain known as Charlotte's Web to be used by patients suffering from epilepsy and cancer who are under a doctor's care. Lawmakers were moved by the stories of parents and their children, whose suffering from seizures could be eased by marijuana converted into an oil. The regulatory scheme could be used as a model if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November allowing marijuana to be used for other medical ailments.
Floridians will see the practical impact of the Legislature's work. Lawmakers voted to require children to be secured in traditional car or booster seats for children through age 5. The speed limit would be raised to 75 mph on some stretches of interstate highways if the governor agrees. And there will be sales tax holidays for supplies for school, hurricanes and energy efficiency improvements.
While lawmakers left Tallahassee without creating major controversy, there remains a permanent stain on this Legislature. For two years, Weatherford and a handful of other Republican leaders refused to accept billions in federal Medicaid expansion money to help pay for health coverage for a million uninsured Floridians. The House refused to accept a workable Senate plan last year, and a similar proposal failed to receive even a hearing this year. The powerful economic and moral arguments fell on deaf ears, and voters should hold those lawmakers seeking re-election accountable for their indefensible indifference.