Former, current and perhaps future governors took center stage in the Capitol as spring arrived.
Florida honored former Gov. Reubin Askew, a transformational leader who died last week, with a series of events in Tallahassee and Pensacola. A bipartisan who's who of dignitaries paid homage to "Reubin the Good," a prim Southerner whose imprint on nearly every aspect of state policy is still felt more than three decades after he left office.
Meanwhile, the Legislature handed current Gov. Rick Scott his top election-year priority: a massive cut in vehicle-registration fees. The fee rollback fits perfectly into Scott's campaign against Charlie Crist, the former governor who is trying to get his old job back and who was at the helm when the fees were hiked.
And, although divided, the House handed Speaker Will Weatherford, considered a top candidate for a run at governor someday, one of his chief legislative goals -- a tuition break for undocumented immigrants. Hispanics have tried for a decade to get the measure passed, but its future remains uncertain in the Senate.
FAREWELL TO 'VISIONARY' LEADER, 'REUBIN THE GOOD':
Askew, who died March 13 at age 85, lay in state in a flag-draped casket topped by a single white rose Tuesday in the historic Old Capitol, where "the man of courage" was inaugurated in 1971 and where he served as a lawmaker from Pensacola for 12 years.
Askew was a seminal figure in Florida's modern history whose policies shaped nearly every facet of the state. Education, the environment, civil rights, the judiciary and "government in the sunshine" were among the legacies the former governor, who served from 1971 to 1979, left behind.
"He was a visionary. He saw issues whether they were in areas of racial fairness or educational opportunities or environmental protection in a generational perspective, not just what's going to be the best position for the next election. He led by his personal example and by the wisdom of his ideas and the strength of his passions," said former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who also served as governor.
Honoring Askew with a resolution on Tuesday, the Senate heaped bipartisan praise on the late governor as a calming influence during the turbulent civil rights era who led efforts to institute a corporate-income tax. As governor, Askew shepherded Florida from a sleepy state into a booming, modern tourism hub. He also appointed the first black Supreme Court justice and pushed through a voter-approved open government "Sunshine Amendment" in part to clean up a state government mired in corruption and scandal.
Five former governors -- Graham, Crist, Bob Martinez, Buddy MacKay and Wayne Mixson -- joined hundreds of other mourners Wednesday at a memorial service at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. Past and current members of the Florida Supreme Court, the Cabinet, dozens of legislators -- including Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz -- also attended the hour-and-a-half service. Askew is survived by his wife, Donna Lou; two children, Kevin Askew and Angela White; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Florida has had "a number of great public servants, people that we like and admire," Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former president of Florida State University and a close friend of Askew, said in one of three eulogies Wednesday. "But I believe we've had two people who we loved. And those people were LeRoy Collins and Reubin Askew."
Askew will be remembered for "his public service calling and his convictions that Florida could be a model for diversity, for equal opportunity and for integrity," D'Alemberte said.
Askew was dubbed "Reubin the Good" by someone who probably intended the label to be derisive, D'Alemberte recalled.
"But the truth of the matter, he simply was good. If you think about Reubin Askew, you think of a person of good character, good judgment, and charm," D'Alemberte said.
Askew's son Kevin revealed that the FBI once assigned the code name "Integrity" to his father.
"And that was the man that he was, was integrity," he said, praising his dad as "a kind, gentle man" who taught his children "to treat other people as you want to be treated."
Longtime aide Jim Bacchus, a former congressman and onetime speechwriter for Askew, imparted some advice on Askew's behalf in an impassioned testimony to the late governor's belief that people should remain true to their convictions, whatever the cost.
"Lead. What good does it do you to be in public office if you don't lead? If you don't take a chance? If you don't tell the people what they need to hear and not just what they want to hear? Reubin Askew didn't need to put his finger in the wind to find out what he believed," Bacchus said.
VEHICLE REGISTRATION FEES IN REVERSE:
Scott was on the House floor Thursday when the chamber unanimously approved his top election-year priority: a rollback in vehicle-registration fees authorized by the Republican-dominated Legislature in 2009, when Crist just happened to be at the helm. The bill, which will save motorists roughly $20 to $25 per vehicle, will go into effect Sept. 1, just before voters head to the polls to decide whether to give Scott four more years in the governor's mansion.
Rep. Jared Moskowitz broke the code about the politics behind the measure (SB 156) during floor debate Thursday evening.
"We're doing this because one governor wants to use this issue against a former governor in the election," Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, said.
Scott wasted no time in making Moskowitz's prediction a reality.
Scott quickly blamed the vehicle-fee hike, imposed as lawmakers were trying to close a billion-dollar budget gap caused by the state's prolonged economic slump, on Crist, who's trying to get his old job back as a Democrat and, right now, is Scott's chief opponent in the race.
"This is a tax increase that Charlie Crist passed in 2009," Scott said. "The right thing happened tonight, to reduce these taxes and putting more money back in Floridians' hands. I look forward to getting it on my desk and signing it to reduce the tax that Charlie Crist passed in 2009."
Scott's campaign used social media to crow about the rollback.
"Thanks to Gov Scotts leadership, @CharlieCrists 2009 tax hikes on car reg fees repealed unanimously," his campaign Twitter account messaged Friday morning.
Individual registration fees will be reduced by $20 to $25, depending on the size of the vehicle. The bill is expected to cost the state $309 million during the upcoming 2014-15 budget year, and about $395 million annually in future years.
Legislative budget writers have more than $1 billion extra to spend this year, and Scott wants $500 million of that to go toward tax and fee cuts.
But how they'll carve up the remaining cuts remains to be seen.
The House Finance and Tax Committee on Thursday introduced a package that includes tax breaks for gym memberships, cement mixing drums and car seats. The House plan also features four sales-tax holidays, including the popular back-to-school tax cut. The House proposal would also give Scott his requested increase in the corporate-income tax exemption, bringing it from $50,000 to $75,000.
But the Senate isn't sold, at least not yet.
Senate Finance and Tax Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill's plan includes a school supplies and clothing tax holiday that is shorter than the House's version, along with a reduction in a tax imposed on cable and phone services.
"There are lots of different ideas out there. We're only in the third week. There's a long way to go," Hukill, R-Port Orange, said.
DEMS HELP GOP SPEAKER ATTAIN 'DREAMERS' DREAM:
Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, has made a priority of giving in-state tuition rates to students who lack authorization to be in the United States, sometimes called "Dreamers" after the congressional "Dream Act."
Thursday evening, Weatherford's chamber made his dream a reality. But the GOP speaker wouldn't have reached his goal without the help of Democrats.
The House passed the measure with an 81-33 vote, with just one of the 33 Republicans who voted against the bill speaking out during an emotional floor debate.
Nearly half of Weatherford's GOP caucus voted against the bill, which allows undocumented immigrants to pay cheaper, in-state tuition rates if they attend Florida middle and high schools for at least four straight years before going to college.
In-state tuition for "Dreamers" has been a priority of the Hispanic caucus for a decade.
Weatherford played down the fact that 33 of the 74 Republicans who voted on the bill opposed it.
"If you'd have told me six months ago that over 80 members of the Florida House would vote for a bill to give in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants, I would not have believed you. I think it was a historic victory for the children of this state that are waiting for that opportunity, for that chance to have upward mobility," he told reporters.
But some critics accuse Weatherford of pandering to Hispanics -- a powerful and growing voting bloc courted by national GOP leaders -- with the issue.
And despite bipartisan support in the House, the bill could struggle in the Senate, an unusual dilemma in the historically more moderate upper chamber.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, opposes the proposal, and the counterpart (SB 1400) to the House bill narrowly escaped the Senate Education Committee with a 5-4 vote after most of the panel's Republicans voted against it.
Both the House and Senate proposals include a sweetener for Scott, who campaigned on an Arizona-style immigration law during his first time on the stump four years ago.
The House version passed Thursday would lower from 15 percent to 6 percent the annual tuition increases that universities can impose without legislative approval.
But the Senate version, sponsored by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, would abolish the "tuition differential" altogether, something Weatherford opposes but which Scott supports.
After the House vote Thursday night, Scott -- without mentioning the undocumented student aspect of the bill -- told reporters, "I like the Senate bill."
Gaetz could not say when -- or if -- the Senate would take a final vote on the measure.
"We still have plenty of time left for the bill to make it to the floor," he said before the House vote. "I don't know if the bill will make it through all of its committees. I don't know if it will make it through its committees in its current form. So it's kind of hard to know if and when it will get to the floor."
STORY OF THE WEEK: Former Gov. Reubin Askew, who died March 13 at age 85, was honored in Tallahassee and in his hometown of Pensacola.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "It's a shame. A terrible shame. Thousands of children seeking more opportunities for a better life will be denied. I cannot see any reason why wed quit on these kids." -- House Speaker Will Weatherford after the withdrawal of a Senate bill that would have dramatically expanded a school-vouchers program.