The beginning of February brings with it a month that promises several things, from Valentine's Day to the beginning of spring training. And, for all intents and purposes, the start of the legislative session.
Like pitchers and catchers who report and start spring training by knocking off the proverbial rust, lawmakers won't go into full sprint mode over the following month, instead holding committee meetings ahead of the official March 4 opening of the session. But also like the players who will soon show up at camp locations across Florida (and Arizona), they will lay the critical groundwork for what happens in the months ahead.
So Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz spent part of Wednesday detailing their plans for the 2014 session to reporters and editors gathered for the Associated Press's annual legislative planning meeting in Tallahassee. Scott and his prime opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, also traded political shots at the event.
Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court declined to snuff out a medical marijuana initiative that could change all of their calculations.
BUDGETS AND BALLOTS:
Officially, Scott's remarks at the AP meeting were to introduce his new, nearly $74.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Most of the highlights were already known: The plan would boost spending for education and child welfare, slash taxes and fees by more than $500 million and fund an array of other politically popular programs in an election year.
There were a couple of new details -- $21.6 million in tax breaks by raising the exemption on the corporate income tax from $50,000 to $75,000, and setting aside up to $70 million for Florida Forever, a major land conservation program.
But the governor tried to keep the focus on the tax cuts in the package, including rolling back a motor-vehicle registration fee increase approved in 2009.
"My message to the people of Florida is this: It's your money," Scott said. "We want you to keep it in your pockets. Invest in your hopes, invest in your dreams."
Democrats were unimpressed, noting that the "historic" education budget increase would largely come from rising local property tax revenues, which would account for $374.7 million of the $542 million boost for schools.
"Historic disappointment -- that's what's historic about this governor's budget," sneered House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.
Scott, though, didn't focus solely on budgetary business. He used the growth in state revenues and the general improvement in the economy to take some swipes at Crist, a former Republican governor now running as a Democrat for his old job.
"Florida shed more than 800,000 jobs in the four years before I took office," he said, without needing to point out who was governor then. "Taxes increased, debt increased and the unemployment rate rose to 11.4 percent, all while hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost. Florida was in a hole, and for four years there was just more digging."
Crist pointed out that Scott had a history of his own, including the incumbent's time as CEO of hospital giant Columbia/HCA. After Scott left the firm, it paid a record $1.7 billion in fines, fees and damages in a settlement for Medicare and Medicaid fraud. The fraud occurred while Scott was CEO but he left the firm days after the feds raided company offices
"Floridians need to be reminded who I'm running against," Crist said. "This is a guy who headed a company that ended up having to pay the largest fine for fraud in the history of the United States of America at the time. To me that is stunning and unconscionable. I'm going to talk about it every day."
Crist's primary opponent, former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, tried to tie both men together -- using Crist's former time in the GOP as a cudgel.
"I stand on my record," she said. "I think he has rewritten his."
So far, the last couple of months of campaigning appear to have made no real difference. A Quinnipiac University poll released the day after the AP event showed Crist leading Scott, 46 percent to 38 percent -- about the same as a November survey by the university's polling arm. Scott would beat Rich by 4 points, 41 percent to 37 percent, though with a huge chunk of voters undecided.
LET'S GET TO WORK PLAN:
Less political, at least on the surface, was a presentation by Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Gaetz, R-Niceville, on their shared agenda for 2014. It marks the second straight year that Gaetz and Weatherford, seeking to distance themselves from the rancor between the House and Senate under their predecessors, have done the two-man show.
Especially for an election year, when the tendency is for lawmakers to do their work as quickly as possible and get out of the town, the agenda was ambitious. The two leaders want to cut the "differential tuition" increases that universities can request, expand the state's tax-credit voucher program, pass a "Florida GI Bill," turn Florida into "scorched earth" for sexual predators, hit Scott's tax-cut target and overhaul the state's pension system.
"Were doubling down with our legislative agenda in 2014," Weatherford said. "What were doing here today is creating a framework that I believe our legislators and the members of our committees in the House and Senate can work on to refine and improve upon."
Thurston said he backs the proposals to roll back motor-vehicle registration fees and limit tuition hikes, and the intent of the Republican leadership's military-friendly "GI Bill." But he said further details on the GOP agenda are needed.
"Some of the stuff on the list weve been advocating for years and years and years," Thurston said. "So if theyre moving toward that, Id support that. But Id like to see the details of how they intend to do that."
Gaetz said the intent of the GI Bill is to make Florida "the No. 1 military friendly state." It would include out-of-state tuition waivers for all veterans, free tuition for members of the Florida National Guard and waiver of licensing fees for returning service personnel who move to Florida.
Weatherford and Gaetz's plans for higher education would include lowering the cap on annual increases under differential tuition from 15 percent to 6 percent.
The House speaker said the purpose of the proposal is to rein in the costs of prepaid tuition plans, which allow parents to lock in tuition and fees for their children to attend state colleges and universities. Because of the differential tuition law, approved in 2009, the plans have to assume that tuition rates will increase 15 percent every year.
The proposal "will dramatically reduce the cost of what is now an unaffordable and out-of-reach Florida prepaid plan for our citizens and for the middle class," Weatherford said.
But it's not clear if universities, many of which have chafed under Scott's efforts to rein in tuition in recent years, will fight the proposal.
FLORIDA: RED STATE, BLUE STATE, OR GREEN STATE?
Meanwhile, after weeding through the minutiae of the English language, a narrowly divided Supreme Court ruled that it was high time voters got to decide whether medical marijuana would be allowed in Florida.
By a 4-3 margin, the court ruled that the summary of a constitutional amendment that voters will see at the polls isn't deceptive, swatting away arguments from Attorney General Pam Bondi and legislative leaders that the proposal is actually far broader than the summary lets on.
"We conclude that the ballot title and summary fairly inform voters of the chief purpose of the amendment and will not mislead voters, who will be able to cast an intelligent and informed ballot as to whether they want a provision in the state Constitution authorizing the medical use of marijuana, as determined by a licensed Florida physician, under Florida law," the majority wrote in a joint opinion.
In a dissent, Chief Justice Ricky Polston said the ruling "will result in Floridians voting on a constitutional amendment in disguise." He said the amendment would allow a far wider use of pot than the ballot suggests.
"For example, despite what the title and summary convey to voters, minor aches and pains, stress, insomnia, or fear of an upcoming flight could qualify for the medical use of marijuana under the text of the amendment," Polston wrote. "This is seriously misleading."
The ruling means that the marijuana proposal will appear on the November ballot as Amendment No. 2. But it could also complicate efforts to pass a legislative measure to legalize a marijuana extract known as "Charlotte's Web."
Proponents of the treatment believe it can dramatically reduce seizures in children with a rare form of epilepsy.
Charlotte's Web is an extract of the marijuana derivative cannabidiol, or CBD, but is low in the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The strain is oil-based, can be taken orally and doesn't get users high, unlike the medical marijuana that would be authorized under the constitutional proposal.
Legislative authorization "is still our daughter's and 125,000 other Floridians' best chance at getting this life-changing medicine quickly," said Peyton Moseley, whose 10-year-old adopted daughter RayAnn is one of an estimated 125,000 children in Florida diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome.
"Having the full-on legalization of medical marijuana on the ballot in November is fine and good, but if your childs life depended on her gaining access to a certain kind of medicine, would you want to leave that decision in the hands of the voters?" Moseley said.
But the court's decision to put the prescription pot question on the ballot could pose a conundrum for conservative lawmakers, already skeptical of the non-euphoric strain.
"I think after people analyze it they are going to kind of line up. They'll either say there is a right way involving these derivatives and there's a wrong way and contrast it with the amendment. Or they'll say people are going to get this all mixed up and think I'm for (medical marijuana). It depends how their district reads and how they want to be seen," said House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott unveils the final pieces of his nearly $74.2 billion budget ahead of this year's legislative session.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "There's this perception that there's going to be unlimited money. It's not like it's going to be only a Rick Scott negative campaign against Charlie Crist and Charlie Crist is just going to have his name on the ballot. It's going to be a conversation. It's not going to be like Pepsi and Tab or Ford and the Malaysian Proton." -- Steve Schale, an adviser to Charlie Crist, on the 2014 governor's race.