It was the second full week of the new year, but in some ways it felt like the true beginning of 2014.
The week was all about entries in Florida politics. Former House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera was introduced as Gov. Rick Scott's new lieutenant governor. Scott's official campaign kicked off quietly on Friday with a press release naming its leaders. And a senator discussed a plan to bestow Arc de Triomphe-style grandeur to entryways into Florida.
Meanwhile, one of the key issues of the legislative session -- a crackdown on sexual predators -- started making its way through the Legislature. And Scott began unveiling budget plans beyond his promise of $500 million in reductions to taxes and fees -- another sign that the opening of the 2014 session was itself not far away.
Scott has not formally announced that he's running for re-election beyond telling reporters in a matter-of-fact way that he intends to, and probably never will. A series of announcements beginning Tuesday might be the closest the governor ever gets to officially throwing his hat in the ring.
The first step was ending a months-long drama that percolated in Tallahassee's inside-the-bubble buzz longer than anyone imagined. Scott announced at a press conference held almost 10 months to the day after Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned that Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera would be his No. 2 in the Capitol and his running mate on the campaign trail.
"I am confident that we took the right amount of time to find the right person to serve as Floridas lieutenant governor," said Scott, who was recently sued over the length of the search for Carroll's replacement. "Carlos leadership experience will make him a vital part of ensuring the passage of our $500 million tax-cut package this year."
The pick was not on many (if any) of the short lists that had been floated in the weeks leading up to the announcement. And it suggested that Scott might be concerned about his standing among Hispanic voters, especially Cuban-Americans in South Florida who have formed a bedrock of GOP support for decades. Scott rankled some Latinos during his first campaign when he called for laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
"Carlos is a popular politician who will help the governor somewhat with the Hispanic vote," said Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University. "The governor still has to do more, but this is a good first step."
Lopez-Cantera could also help Scott with his final legislative session before he faces voters again.
"He is a well-respected leader who maintains strong relationships with the business community, local and community leaders, legislators and constituents," Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in a statement issued through Scott's office. "I have no doubt his breadth of legislative experience will help Governor Scott move his priorities forward."
Democrats knocked the choice of a former Tallahassee insider as politics as usual, while their likely nominee for governor used Lopez-Cantera to set up a bank-shot aimed at Scott.
"Carlos is a fine fellow," former Gov. Charlie Crist said Thursday. "But he's with the wrong guy. Governor Scott has disappointed Floridians with education, the environment, with ethics, with so many things. He's the top of the ticket. And that's really, at the end of the day, what the race is about"
But Lopez-Cantera's appointment was only the first step of the nascent Scott re-election campaign getting its war footing. The effort staffed up on Friday, announcing that Melissa Sellers is moving from the governor's office as communications director to manage his campaign.
Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who was mentioned by some as a potential lieutenant governor, will be the chairman. Also joining: Mike Fernandez, chairman of Coral Gables-based MBF Healthcare Partners, and Darlene Jordan, a former national finance chair for Mitt Romney, as heads of the finance team; Matt Moon, the Republican Party of Florida communications director, who will handle the same job for the campaign; and Tim Saler, an RPOF strategist who will now be Sellers' deputy.
'YOU WILL SPEND TIME IN JAIL':
After weeks of meetings that were most notable for agency presentations and gauzy discussions about the future, the Legislature turned toward taking up actual legislation in its latest set of committee gatherings. One of the top items on the docket: Toughening laws about sexual predators and when they can be released.
The initiatives, prompted by a highly critical newspaper series and a fatal attack on a Jacksonville girl, began in earnest in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
"We want to send a message that if you do something to our children, you will spend time in jail -- and it's not going to be a short time," said committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, and the sponsor of one of the bills.
Lawmakers have been focused on the issue since August, when the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that nearly 600 sexually violent predators had been released only to be convicted of new sex offenses -- including more than 460 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.
Lawmakers also have a cautionary tale in the June murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in Jacksonville. Recently-released sex offender Donald Smith, 57, was accused of abducting, raping and strangling the child. He faces trial in May on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual battery. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
The Legislature is considering measures that would eliminate a three-year statute of limitations on prosecuting lewd or lascivious offenses involving children younger than 16, strengthen penalties against sex offenders and increase the amount of personal information that registered sex predators and offenders must provide.
Most lawmakers agreed that the most violent sexual offenders should face the kind of penalties Evers outlined -- or worse.
"If there is an opportunity to give them the death penalty, I would be all for it," Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, said during one House meeting.
But Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, expressed some doubts about what he called "a slippery slope" in pursuit of tougher sanctions against sex predators.
"Rehabilitation -- that's not a word in our vocabulary anymore," he said.
In the end, Smith voted with the others.
'FLORIDA WELCOMES YOU':
Not every idea discussed at the Capitol was quite so serious. Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, pitched a plan for roadway displays to introduce visitors to the state.
"We've got a little piddly sign and we junk it all up. ... It doesn't give a welcoming entrance," said Bean.
That's about to change. By the fall of 2015, drivers crossing the Florida state line will be greeted by majestic archways towering over palm trees and tropical-looking foliage at locations on Interstate 95 and Interstate 75. Similar signage is also planned for the Interstate 10 Florida-Alabama state line, according to DOT officials.
The 30-foot-high twin towers will be connected with a 40-foot-wide mock-cable suspension bridge featuring the words "Florida Welcomes You" with a rising orange sun on the southbound side and "Thank You for Visiting Florida" as drivers head north. Plans also include a separate bridge. "Thedepartment was exploring the idea of putting up more eye-popping signs along the state lines when Bean approached the agency. Bean said he promised to come up with the funds for the projects, but the DOT found the $2.8 million in its budget, and work on the towers will begin this fall.
Another sign that the session is drawing closer? Scott is beginning to drop details about the spending plan that he'll submit to the Legislature.
The governor began the week by touting a "record" $8.8 billion transportation budget to boost spending on roads, bridges, ports and other needs. Scott's plan would be a $200 million increase over the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
"When I came in, I said, how do you get this economy growing?" Scott said during an appearance at the Jacksonville port, known as JAXPORT. "Tourism will do it, but the other thing was that we have to focus on building things."
The proposal includes $138 million for seaport improvements, $3.8 billion for road construction, $192 million for bridge maintenance, $134 million for safety initiatives and $90 million to bridge a 2.6-mile section of the Tamiami Trail west of Miami to improve the southern flow of the Florida Everglades.
On Tuesday, Scott announced he wants about $40 million more for child protection, including nearly $32 million for the state Department of Children and Families for child protective investigations and $8 million for six Florida sheriffs' offices that handle such cases.
And on Friday, Scott pitched an idea to wrap Florida's popular back-to-school sales-tax holiday around two weekends -- more than triple its current length of time -- as part of his $500 million tax-break pledge.
The extended tax-free period would stretch over 10 days in August and would do away with the state and local sales taxes on select clothing under $100, school items such as pens and notebooks that cost less than $15, and computers and related electronic equipment costing less than $750.
Business groups quickly praised Scott's latest proposal.
"An opportunity economy will allow people to keep more of their money and families will have more money to invest in their future, Florida Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President David Hart said in a press release.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott appoints former House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera as his new lieutenant governor as his re-election campaign begins ramping up for the fall.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "We've done this before but this is a 10-day one, so it's longer."-- Gov. Rick Scott, explaining his sales-tax holiday proposal during an appearance at the Florida Chamber of Commerce Insurance Summit in Orlando.