Some saw the 2014 Florida legislative session as a dumbed-down, election-year, ho-hum affair. Sunshine State News did not.
We saw a year of amazing transformation in a deeply conservative mecca, where two bills, unthinkable a year ago -- the sanction of light-strain medical marijuana for childhood epilepsy, cancer and neurological disorders and in-state tuition granted to children of illegal immigrants -- passed both chambers during the session's last dramatic week.
True, destination resort casinos came up short. And pension reform, Medicaid expansion and the film industry all failed.
But schoolchildren were big winners this election year. The state budget includes an additional $176 in per-student classroom spending for K-12 in public schools. That's a 2.6 percent increase. There was more money, too, for school construction projects, charter schools, preschools and other education programs.And at the last minute, the Legislature managed to include an expansion of the Corporate Tax Scholarship Fund, giving more educational opportunities to low-income students.
Here now is SSN's view of the session's biggest winners and losers:
Rep. Matt Gaetz. Before this session, Baby Gaetz was better known for his big mouth and constant flow of amusing but often infuriating tweets. But the Shalimar Republican showed great maturity as he fought impressively and knowledgeably for legislation advancing medical marijuana use in Florida. As the session progressed, the chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee became one of the most sought-after legislators by his colleagues, gathering a crowd virtually everywhere he went in the Capitol. A heavy favorite to replace his father in the Florida Senate in 2016, for the first time, it was easy to imagine Gaetz in the upper chamber instead of the much more partisan and controlled House.
Gov. Rick Scott. Going into a tough re-election battle, Scott needed a quiet session where he could score some wins and not have issues like medical marijuana and gambling divide the GOP. Thats exactly what happened. Scott pushed for rolling back $500 million in fees that Charlie Crist enacted and the Legislature happily obliged. Now, Scott is on the campaign trail trumpeting the news and basking in applause. With most media outlets across the state pegging it as a successful session, almost across the board Scott got exactly what he wanted before the election.
Sen. Jack Latvala. Even with an eye on the Senate presidency after the 2016 elections and conservatives still opposed to him, Latvala helped his chances this session. Standing at center stage on several of the leading issues, including pension reform, marijuana, and in-state tuition, Latvala set out to show he could manage the Senate and pulled it off artfully. He may not have sewn up the presidency, but he did help himself and proved, once again, he is one of the leading players in the Legislature.
Speaker Will Weatherford. More reputations have been lost than made running the House, but Weatherfords star is still on the rise after his two years as speaker. Even though he lost on pension reform, he can still rally conservatives by citing his efforts to rein in that growing fiscal problem. Weatherford also won on in-state tuition for illegals, scoring points with moderates, Hispanics and the governor. Shrewd enough to avoid chairing the RPOF, Weatherfords next challenge is finding a way to stay on the public stage despite being out of office. Still only 34, his time will come and the 2014 session did nothing to hurt his chances down the road.
Rep. Katie Edwards. The Plantation Democrat lit up the House in only her second session, proving it's more important on big bills to reach across the aisle and get results than it is to play partisan games and sulk on the back bench. Though Edwards got more press for her role with Matt Gaetz in bringing the Charlotte's Web medical marijuana bill home (HB 843/SB 1030), her passionate leadership on SB 89 (Threat of Force, or "Warning Shot" bill) and particularly on HB 99 (Substance Abuse) should cement her as one of the star performers in the lower chamber.
Real-McCoy activists. Nobody paid the Dreamers to show up day after day with signs on behalf of in-state tuition for children of undocumented workers. But they did, and they made their presence felt. So did families like the Moseleys -- Holley, Peyton and daughter RayAnn -- and all the many others who traveled to Tallahassee to address House and Senate committees about intractable epilepsy and their children's need for medical marijuana. They melted lawmakers' hearts, turning an impossible dream of quality of living, instead of sure, early death, into reality.
Sen. Joe Negron. Latvalas chief rival for the Senate presidency after the 2016 elections had a rough session. His attempt to keep in-state tuition for illegals in committee and off the floor fell apart. And fiscal conservatives can and should raise eyebrows on how the state budget went up more than $3 billion from the figure Scott first proposed. Negron was outmaneuvered and in the last week particularly, paled in comparison to Latvala.
Rep. Perry Thurston. If the House minority leader was auditioning for a role in the Florida Cabinet this session, his performance probably didn't, and won't, win him the part. At his most egregious, Thurston, Democratic candidate for attorney general, let his caucus down in dramatic style when he waited until 8:50 on the morning HB 89 (the so-called "Warning Shot Bill") was coming to a vote on the House floor to file a Stand Your Ground appeal amendment. The move was a pointless political act that only wreaked havoc with the 44 members of his caucus -- some of whom face tight elections and weren't thrilled at being asked to declare themselves against a popular law. Thurston put electioneering ahead of his troops' needs, handing them a paralyzing morning-coffee surprise, and in one widely publicized day, showcased his lack of leadership.
Sen. Tom Lee.The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee found it more important to push ahead withSB 846, an incomplete ethics law, a "Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees,"yet he did not call an investigation of growing accusations of public corruption -- that candidate for governor Charlie Crist traded judgeships for donations -- a flagrant quid pro quo -- while he was governor prior to Rick Scott. Oh, yes, and he wasthe main sponsor of a constitutional amendment that would make it clear whoever wins the election this fall will get to pick the next three Florida Supreme Court justices.Floridians need to know their courts don't belong to governor's appointees and Lee had the perfect opportunity to get answers. He just never made the effort.
Sen. Dwight Bullard. The liberal South Florida state senator was shaping up to be one of the winners of the session with his passion for education and his ascension to lead the Black Caucus. But things fell apart the last week of the session when Bullard accused charter school companies of promising jobs for votes. Don Gaetz demanded to know what proof Bullard had to make such an accusation. He couldnt produce any and had to withdraw his statement. Besides not being able to back up his claim, Bullard was outmaneuvered and outclassed. He leaves the session with more than a few unresolved questions about his judgment -- and perhaps his integrity.
Central Florida House Democrats. Mike Clelland, Karen Castor Dentel, Linda Stewart, Mark Danish and Carl Zimmerman all came into office on Barack Obamas coattails in 2012, and all of them face major Republican opponents in November. Granted, theyre freshmen in the minority, but most of them were bit players -- at best -- in the session. With the arguable exception of Castor Dentel, none of these House freshmen did much to help their campaigns during the session, or even stood out. All of them can expect tough fights in November and some will not be back next year.
Jeff Henderson is a Tallahassee political reporter who writes exclusively for Sunshine State News. Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.