It's the season of giving, and Florida drivers, gun-toting college students and nonbelievers all got treats this week.
Gov. Rick Scott touted a $400 million reduction in vehicle registration fees as part of a proposal to cut taxes and fees by $500 million for Floridians as he seeks re-election to a second term. Legislative leaders jumped on board the registration fee rollback this week, four years after they hiked the fees to help plug a budget hole.
A divided appeals court, meanwhile, sided with gun owners who objected to the University of North Florida's ban on guns in cars on campus, overturning a lower court ruling and possibly opening the door for a Supreme Court decision.
SCOTT: GIVE DRIVERS A (FEE) BREAK:
Scott's proposed $401 million reduction in vehicle registration fees is part of a larger $500 million tax-and-fee-cut package that's the governor's top priority for the 2014 legislative session.
The rollback would shrink what it costs to register a "typical automobile" by $25.05, from $71.85 to $46.80. That would bring the fees back to where they stood before the GOP-dominated Legislature hiked the fees in 2009 to close a $5 billion budget gap during the recession.
"I have one message today for every Florida family: We are going to undo the 54 percent tax increase you saw in 2009 to register your motor vehicles. This means around $400 million annually will be given back to Florida families. This has never been government's money -- it's your money -- and I look forward to working with the Florida Legislature to return it back to you," Scott said in a statement after announcing his plan in Tampa.
Senate budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, proposed a smaller rollback during the 2013 legislative session that would have been offset by doing away with a tax break for insurance companies. Negron's plan died in the House.
But Scott was flanked by legislative leaders at the announcement of his plan in Tampa. And, without giving a flat-out endorsement, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, indicated Scott would get the support of his chamber.
"We welcome the governor getting on Joe Negron's bandwagon," Gaetz told reporters.
Even Scott's competitor-in-chief Charlie Crist, a Democrat who signed off on the fee increases as the (then-Republican) governor, gave Scott back-handed praise for the plan. Crist's campaign noted that the fees have been in place longer under Scott than they were under Crist, who made a losing bid for the U.S. Senate as an independent in 2010 instead of seeking another four years in the governor's mansion.
"When these fees were passed by Rick Scott's colleagues and signed into law, they were never meant to be permanent," Crist said in a statement issued by his campaign. "I'm surprised it's taken this long for Governor Scott to realize that it's time to roll these fees back -- better late than never."
SCOTT AND CRIST CAMPAIGN (CASH) UPDATES:
The scrap over vehicle fees is just a taste of what's certain to be an ugly, year-long throw-down between Scott, hoping to keep his 700 North Adams St. address, and Crist, eager to move back in.
Crist raked in about $3 million in his first month on the campaign trail, with about two-thirds of that going to his "Charlie Crist for Florida" political committee. His backers boasted that was an astronomical amount for a nonincumbent.
But Scott's haul eclipsed Crist's. Scott's "Let's Get to Work" political committee brought in $5.87 million in November -- nearly twice that of his opponent's overall take -- and brought the committee's total contributions this year to nearly $20 million.
Scott also officially filed his campaign papers Tuesday, the same day campaign-finance reports were due. Political junkies will get more timely fixes over the next year thanks to campaign law revisions approved by the Legislature earlier this year. The new law hiked campaign contribution limits from $500 to $3,000 for statewide candidates like Scott and Crist and now require the reports to be filed monthly instead of quarterly.
LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY:
The 1st District Court of Appeal struck a blow to university and college presidents and sided with gun rights advocates in a case against the University of North Florida filed by student Alexandria Lainez and Florida Carry Inc. The case challenged a rule barring students from keeping guns in their cars on campus.
In a full-court decision, the judges ruled 12-3 that universities and colleges lack the authority to regulate guns. That power rests solely with the Legislature, which pre-empted local governments and state agencies from regulating firearms in a 2011 law that led to people with concealed weapons permits being allowed to bring them into the state Capitol, the court ruled.
Under state law, guns are banned on school and university properties, with an exception carved out for people who secure firearms in their cars. However, the law also says that school districts can waive that exception, meaning they can also bar guns in vehicles on school property.
"The statute clearly grants school districts the power to waive the exception -- not colleges or universities," Judge L. Clayton Roberts wrote for the majority. "UNF attempted to exercise this waiver in adopting the operative regulation; however, UNF is not a 'school district.'"
The ruling drew seven separate opinions from the 15-member bench. The majority opinion drew eight votes, with some of the members drafting separate, concurring opinions, while four other judges joined a different opinion agreeing with the court's result.
In a strongly-worded dissent, Judge Philip Padovano wrote that universities have separate powers granted in the Constitution.
"These opinions pursue differing legal theories but they all arrive at the same conclusion: that a state university is powerless to prohibit students from bringing firearms to school," Padovano wrote. "This remarkable conclusion is not supported in the law, and with due respect for my colleagues, I believe that it defies common sense."
A UNF spokeswoman said the university has not decided whether to appeal the ruling, hailed by Florida Carry.
"Post-secondary education students are no longer under threat of arrest, and at public universities and colleges, no longer under threat of academic or administrative sanctions for having lawfully stored firearms in their vehicles while attending classes," the organization said in an analysis of the opinion on its website.
AIRING GRIEVANCES, SHOWING STRENGTH:
A South Florida blogger angered by a Nativity scene in the Capitol festooned the state building with holiday cheer of a different sort.
Chaz Stevens of Deerfield Beach erected a "Festivus" pole made of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans to protest what he called the ridiculousness of allowing a manger scene in a state building.
For those who aren't "Seinfeld" fans -- or who haven't paid attention to the national news Stevens' pole has made -- Festivus is a noncommercial "holiday" festival "for the rest of us" in the Christmas and year-end holiday season.
Festivus, celebrated Dec. 23, comes with a ceremonial post-dinner "airing of the grievances" in which participants describe how they have been disappointed by others in the past year and engage in "feats of strength."
While Florida's elections have long been the butt of late-night jokes, the Festivus pole, which went up on Wednesday, is the latest bit of Sunshine State shtick making the rounds. Stevens appears to be enjoying the notoriety.
"First Colbert, and now the Daily Show? Holy crap does it get any cooler than this?" he posted on his blog, MAOS -- which stands for "my acts of sedition" -- "words by Chaz Stevens, genius," and "home of the Pabst Blue Ribbon Festivus Pole."
The Nativity scene, put up on Dec. 3 by the Florida Prayer Network, opened a floodgate of others seeking equal time on the first floor. So far, the Department of Management Services has approved applications from two groups of atheists: the Tallahassee Atheists requested a 4-by-5-foot sign that says "Happy Holidays" and "There are many reasons for the season, celebrate the one that you choose." The American Atheists Florida Regional Directors proposed a similar-sized poster that says "Celebrate the true meaning of Xmas!" The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation also put up a seasonal banner featuring Benjamin Franklin and the Statue of Liberty. No word yet on whether DMS will sign off on an application from the Satanic Temple of Tallahassee.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott proposed a $401 million vehicle registration-fee reduction.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "What's the point? There is no point. It's ridiculous. This is the most ridiculous thing I could come up with." -- Chaz Stevens, an atheist who erected a Festivus pole made of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans in the Capitol.