Weekly Roundup: Starting Guns for CLC, the Legislature
Around the State
For anyone thinking that the appointment of new Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera was the first step in recasting Gov. Rick Scott's election-year image, Lopez-Cantera's first week on the job undermined the notion.
Scott said he would "consider" a measure that would reduce higher-education tuition for some undocumented immigrants, which could be seen as a sizable concession from someone who rose to prominence by advocating an Arizona-style immigration enforcement bill.
But for the most part, Lopez-Cantera seemed to instead become more like Scott than vice versa, with the governor's new No. 2 already proving adept at rattling off the economic talking points and campaign-style slogans that have been the hallmarks of Scott's first term.
Of course, the new lieutenant governor wasn't the only one settling into Tallahassee for a while. Lawmakers have begun the legislative session in all but name, with the first committee week in February featuring discussion of Scott's budget proposal and a pair of gun bills pushed by the National Rifle Association.
The actual swearing-in of Lopez-Cantera was a quiet, private ceremony. The former House majority leader, who most recently served as Miami-Dade County property appraiser, was joined at the ceremony by his family and Scott.
At around 10:30 a.m. Monday, Lopez-Cantera became the 19th lieutenant governor in Florida history. Within a few days, he and the Scott administration were facing questions on issues of importance to the Hispanic community that political observers viewed as one of the reasons Lopez-Cantera got the job.
It was largely smiles during Lopez-Cantera's first outing in his official role, a press conference with Scott outside the governor's mansion about an hour after taking the oath of office.
"The governor's been doing a great job," said Lopez-Cantera, 40. "I just look forward to being a part of the team and helping in any way that I can."
For his part, Scott was already laying out a job for his new No. 2, who has far more experience in dealing with the Legislature and the Tallahassee establishment than Scott, who rode the tea-party wave of 2010 to office.
"He's got the right background," Scott said. "He's got a great legislative background -- being majority leader, majority whip, building great relationships. He's been in business. He's got local government experience. He's going to be a major part of making sure we get our $500 million tax break back to Florida families."
But simply naming a Latino to a high-ranking post might not be enough to gain a toehold among the growing number of Hispanic voters, who have shown an increased willingness to cast ballots for Democrats. Scott and Lopez-Cantera met Wednesday with Hispanic lawmakers and faced questions about whether the governor would allow at least some undocumented high school students in Florida schools to be eligible for in-state tuition.
Scott said he was open to the idea, but he clearly wasn't ready to endorse it.
"I'll certainly consider it. I think tuition's too high," Scott said during a meeting with the Hispanic Legislative Caucus
Scott quickly shifted away from the topic and instead focused on lowering tuition. He also bashed Charlie Crist, the leading Democratic challenger in Scott's re-election bid, for approving a 15 percent "tuition differential" that allows universities to raise tuition by up to 15 percent per year and adjust for inflation.
Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, pressed Scott but the governor remained on message.
"I'll consider it but I want all tuition to stop growing," Scott said.
BUT WHAT ABOUT TOASTER STRUDELS?
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association, one of the most effective lobbying groups in Tallahassee, was back at work doing what it does best: getting the Legislature to increase the protections gun-owners and gun-lovers enjoy in Florida. Even if it comes to making sure they can sculpt their breakfast into whatever shape they choose.
A new bill (PCB KTS 14-02) proposed by House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, is already becoming known as "the Pop-Tart bill" for just that reason. The title is a reference to a widely reported news story about a Maryland 7-year-old who was suspended from school last year for chewing his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun.
The bill would tweak school "zero-tolerance policies" to prevent children from being disciplined for simulating a gun while playing or wearing clothes that depict firearms.
"Obviously we don't want firearms brought to school in a backpack," Baxley said. "But we were definitely having some overreactions."
Despite the usual firefights that gun bills spark at the Capitol, there seemed to be a ceasefire over Baxley's bill.
Rep. Carl Zimmermann, a Palm Harbor Democrat and high-school journalism teacher, recalled a student who -- weeks before her graduation -- was found to have a pink water pistol in the back seat of her car and "wasn't allowed to walk to graduation" as a result.
School discipline wasn't the only target for gun-rights supporters. Insurance companies could face tougher penalties if they impose higher rates, refuse to issue or cancel auto or homeowner policies due to gun ownership, under a measure backed by a House committee.
Florida law already prohibits such action, but Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said his proposal (HB 255) would provide a remedy other than with the state Office of Insurance Regulation by allowing a policyholder to sue if an insurer took such an action.
"It just gives greater access to courts," Gaetz said. "It's unlawful now, but the only entity that has the ability to enforce it right now is OIR."
That one wasn't quite as popular as the Pop-Tart bill. Rep. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, an insurance agent, cast the lone vote on the Insurance and Banking Subcommittee against the measure. He called the measure "unnecessary."
"If an insurance company wants to exclude assault-type weapons, it seems to me that it is good to exclude if they desire to," Rader said. "Certainly I know on animal exclusions they exclude Doberman pinschers and rottweilers."
BUDGET BATTLES BREW:
This week also marked the first opportunity for lawmakers to start plunging into the details of Scott's proposed budget. The proposal got a largely receptive -- or at least quiet -- audience among Republicans in both the House and the Senate. But House Democrats, in particular, weren't quite as mum about the nearly $74.2 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
For example, Democratic Rep. Reggie Fullwood of Jacksonville argued that the governor's "historic" funding for education still falls short of the level of per-student funding provided in the 2007-08 budget, the high-water mark for that figure. And Fullwood pointed to the fact that $374.7 million of Scott's proposed $542 million increase for schools would come from local property taxes.
"It appears in this budget, and I hope you can correct me, that we're shifting a lot of the funding requirements to our local governments and their property taxes," he said.
Scott's budget does set aside the largest amount of raw dollars for public education in the state's history. And the governor's budget director, Cynthia Kelly, said the state's 56.4 percent share of the funding "is one of the highest state percentages in recent years" -- though education funding reports on the governor's budget website show that the state provided almost 57.2 percent of the money in the state's main funding source for schools last year.
Democrats repeatedly pushed Kelly for specifics about how many patients would be left on waiting lists for certain state services after Scott's proposed funding to reduce the sizes of those waiting lists. Scott would cut waiting lists for some services for the elderly by more than 2,000 individuals and provide services for more than 1,000 of the highest-need individuals seeking services from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.
Meanwhile, a sales-tax holiday backed by Scott got the go-ahead from the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, but still faces minor challenges before it can clear the Legislature.
While Scott has recommended a 15-day period in June for a list of hurricane-related items to be sales-tax free, the Senate version (SB 362) stands at 12 days.
Senate sponsor Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, called the differences between his measure and Scott's recommendation "minor details that need to be worked out."
"The devil's in the details about how many days it's ultimately going to be," Bradley said. "There is some discussion about what items are going to be included or not included."
An amendment that would have extended the measure to 15 days was withdrawn.
The governor's office has promoted the 15-day hurricane sales tax holiday as a $20 million savings for consumers.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Carlos Lopez-Cantera is sworn in as the first Hispanic lieutenant governor in state history.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "This isn't the first session for these subjects. This is the umpteenth. I don't know if it's the umpteenth plus one that gets something done or the umpteenth itself that gets something done." -- Senate Gaming Committee Garrett Richter, R-Naples, on the prospects for comprehensive gambling legislation.