Weekly Roundup: Let My People Vote (Early and in More Places)
Around the State
Following an election mired by hours-long lines in certain precincts, Scott said local elections supervisors need more flexibility to expand early voting hours and venues in an effort to make every potential vote count.
Scott's comments came as lawmakers returned to Tallahassee and began looking at several major issues, from what went wrong on Election Day to finding ways to enhance safety for students following the fatal shooting of 20 grade-school children and six adults in a Connecticut school last month.
Meanwhile this week, a Florida Supreme Court decision upheld a Scott-backed initiative to require workers in the Florida Retirement System to pay into their pension plans, a ruling that will affect hundreds of thousands of teachers, state and local employees.
And as President Barack Obama announced plans to push for gun control measures, Florida's governor said he won't push for any legislation to make it more difficult to own a gun, and the Senate president said he didn't expect that debate to be held this year in the Legislature, but left to Washington.
SCOTT: PUT ZE EARLY VOTING BACK:
Two years after signing an elections bill that critics said was politically inspired to reduce voting by Democrats, Gov. Rick Scott said this week the change should be reversed.
Elections supervisors should have the authority to give voters up to 14 days before Election Day, Scott said this week. The governor also said shorter ballots would help alleviate the long lines that clogged some precincts in the last general election, and that supervisors should have more flexibility in setting up early voting. All of that would, presumably, make it easier for people to vote – which was the argument the losers made when they tried to persuade Republicans not to reduce the opportunities to vote in the first place.
Scott's announcement breaks with many in his own party who backed the voting restrictions as a way to fight fraud.
Scott also said the early voting period should once again include the Sunday before Election Day, an option used by many black churches to get out the vote and seen by most as an advantage for Democrats.
"Our ultimate goal must be to restore Floridians’ confidence in our election system," Scott said.
FLORIDA RETIREMENT SYSTEM CHANGES OK:
In a victory for Republican legislative leaders (and also for Scott), a divided Florida Supreme Court this week upheld a 2011 law that requires government workers to chip in 3 percent of their salaries to help fund their own retirement accounts.
In a 4-3 decision, the high court overturned a Leon County circuit judge who ruled the law violated the constitutional rights of government workers hired before July 1, 2011, the day the law took effect.
Legislative leaders had feared that a loss at the Supreme Court would blow a $1 billion hole in the state budget.
Backers of the contribution said the ruling allows the state to save money and offer retirement plans more similar to business in the private sector.
Critics, including a coalition of unions led by the Florida Education Association, characterized the employee contributions as a hidden tax on government employees, many of whom have not seen a raise in several years.
Had the court sided with the unions, the state would have been on the hook for about $1 billion in contributions that have already been collected.
Echoing the sentiment of other supporters, Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron said government employees should help pay for their retirement packages, as private-sector workers do.
"I think that our constituents want us to live by the same rules that exist in their workplace," said Negron, R-Stuart. "We can now move forward with crafting our budget."
The case primarily centered on whether a 1974 retirement law created contractual rights that shielded public employees from having to contribute money into the pension system. The court said no.
"The preservation of rights statute was not intended to bind future legislatures from prospectively altering benefits for future service performed by all members of the FRS," Justice Jorge Labara wrote for the majority.
ETHICS PROPOSALS ON FRONT BURNER:
Sen. Jack Latvala, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, said this week he expects an ethics bill to go to the full Senate during the first week of the 2013 legislative session in March.
The bill appears likely to deal with several issues, including bolstering penalties for officials who do not file financial-disclosure forms, reining in lawmakers' use of political committees to pay for meals and other personal expenses, and cracking down on voting conflicts of interest. It also may seek to make it harder for former legislators to lobby after their service.
The bill may also give the Florida Commission on Ethics the power to undertake investigations after receiving referrals from the governor's office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, state attorneys or federal prosecutors.
In the wake of the December school shootings in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers appear serious about school-safety changes – they're already talking about how much it might cost.
Florida now spends about $70 million on school security. Putting a cop in each elementary school might cost more than $100 million, school district representatives estimate.
A Senate panel this week discussed ways to standardize cost-sharing of school resource officers. In some counties, local sheriffs are paying the bulk of providing law enforcement officers in schools. In other counties they pay little or nothing.
Scott, though, says he has no plans to push lawmakers to enact any gun control legislation this session.
"Governor Scott supports the Second Amendment," a statement from his office said this week. "He will listen to ideas about improving school safety during the legislative session, but he continues to support the Second Amendment and is not proposing any gun law changes."
On Friday, Senate President Don Gaetz said he didn't think state lawmakers were likely to go there on their own, either. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Gaetz said while he favors background checks on all gun purchases he doesn't think any changes to gun laws will come up in Tallahassee.
"Congress is going to take that up," Gaetz, R-Niceville, said. "Let them have that debate."
STORY OF THE WEEK: Two years after signing a new law reducing early voting, Gov. Rick Scott does an about face and calls for extending the number of days Florida voters can go to the polls early.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I just don’t quite understand how someone can be a make-believe cop, pursue my son who had every right to be in that neighborhood, chase him, get in a confrontation with him, shoot and kill him and not be arrested. Something has to be done." -- Sybrina Fulton in reference to the state's Stand Your Ground law (and a delay before the arrest of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of her son, Trayvon Martin). Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer has now been charged with murder, but is expected to claim self-defense under Florida's Stand Your Ground doctrine.