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Weekly Roundup: Time to Hit Reset

June 12, 2014 - 6:00pm

It was a week of resets in Florida, whether in Gov. Rick Scott's relationship with Hispanic voters or in Florida State University's beleaguered and increasingly contentious presidential search.

Just a day before U.S. House Republican Leader Eric Cantor lost a Virginia congressional seat after seeming too open to a deal on immigration reform, Scott touched the third rail of GOP politics by signing a bill that would allow some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Florida colleges and universities. Scott focused on other parts of the "affordability" law in an apparent effort to shield himself from conservative criticism.

Meanwhile, FSU completed a slow-motion reboot of its hunt for a new leader, after an effort to start the process with an exclusive interview of influential Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, turned into a public relations debacle. But segments of the university community still regarded the process warily.

And a bill meant to reset the timeline for death row inmates to be executed was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court.


In some ways, a Beef 'O' Brady's makes sense as a setting for a campaign event to tout the governor's efforts to hold down college tuition. The eating establishment might be one of the few places where college students can afford to grab a sit-down meal.

Some of Scott's later stops didn't make quite as much sense; few financially-strapped undergraduates are staying at The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.

But the Monday visit to a Beef 'O' Brady's in Southwest Florida was where Scott went first to boast about signing HB 851. The bill dealt with the immigrant tuition issue and also rolled back a law signed by former Gov. Charlie Crist that allowed state universities to get tuition increases from the system's Board of Governors instead of from the Legislature.

Scott zeroed in on the latter, in no small part because Crist has now become a Democrat and is the incumbent's most likely challenger in the November election.

"I know what its like to work your way through school, but for many kids today, the rising cost of college tuition is making it hard to afford college," Scott said in the campaign statement. "Thats why it was so important to reverse Charlie Crists 15 percent tuition hike and give every student who grows up in Florida the chance to pursue an affordable college education."

Under the legislation, students who attend secondary school in Florida for at least three years prior to graduation will qualify for in-state tuition, regardless of their immigration status.

And the bill changes the so-called "differential tuition" law signed by Crist. Only the University of Florida and Florida State University now will qualify for such increases, which are capped at 6 percent a year, and only if they meet certain conditions.

On Monday, Democrats tried to use the signing of the bill to remind Latinos that Scott had opposed similar in-state tuition legislation in the past and that his rise to the GOP nomination in 2010 was fueled partly by his promises to crack down on illegal immigration. Scott also vetoed a measure last year that would have allowed some young undocumented Floridians, known as "Dreamers," to receive driver's licenses.

Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant told The News Service of Florida that Democrats were happy that one of the party's longstanding priorities was approved.

"But this governor has just signed into law something that he has been adamantly opposed to," Tant said. " ... This time last year, he vetoed the rights for Dreamers to get a driver's license so they could actually go to a community college or a university, go to a job so that they could get ahead and suddenly, deathbed conversion, he's woken up and decided that, well, maybe we ought to allow for in-state tuition for these Dreamers anyway."

Scott also highlighted a portion of the bill that could save parents money on prepaid tuition contracts that are meant to lock in the costs of a higher education for their children.

"This is a great victory for families who want to ensure their students can get a great education, start a successful career, and live the American dream right here in Florida," Scott said in a statement issued Wednesday by his campaign.


Scott has spent most of his time on the campaign trail lately. But that didn't stop him from signing 95 more bills into law Friday, including measures to further restrict abortions in Florida, keep electronic cigarettes out of the hands of minors and regulate the commercial parasailing industry.

The new laws, which mostly go into effect July 1, are also designed to draw more private insurers to write flood-insurance coverage in the state, crack down on questionable charity operations and move up the start of the 2016 legislative session from the usual March kickoff to January.

That left a few bills still on Scott's desk, including proposals to try to curb human-trafficking in the state and a measure that would legalize a form of medical marijuana that purportedly does not get users high but which alleviates life-threatening seizures.

And lawmakers sent him dozens more Friday.


While the tuition to go to Florida State might not be rising quite as quickly anymore, there's another kind of uncertainty hanging over the Tallahassee campus: What's going to become of a muddled process meant to find the university's next president?

After the search became bogged down in negative publicity over the arrangement with John Thrasher, and the Faculty Senate issued a vote of no confidence in the search process, William "Bill" Funk, a Dallas-based consultant brought in to help find FSU a new president, abruptly resigned from the job Monday.

Committee Chairman Ed Burr, in a release posted on the Presidential Search Advisory Committee's website, expressed disappointment about Funk's resignation.

"Mr. Funk felt he could no longer make the kind of contribution to the search that the university deserves," Burr said in the release.

Funk's action came less than a week after Burr reversed the committee's May 21 decision to pause the process so the panel could first interview Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, for the job. Funk had advised the committee that Thrasher's aspiration for the job was keeping other desired candidates from wanting to apply.

Burr, who is also an FSU trustee, noted he came to his decision to reopen the search process because additional applications for president had been submitted.

On Wednesday, the committee agreed to have Burr negotiate a contract with Monterey Park, Calif.-based Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates.

Thrasher, however, is still widely considered the front-runner for the job.

Committee member Eric Walker, chairman of the FSU English Department, said bringing in a new search firm and reopening the process should improve the public perception of the search. However, he indicated Thrasher's desire for the job will continue to make potential applicants pause.


There's been plenty of political controversy over a 2013 law meant to reduce delays in carrying out the death penalty, but there was little judicial disagreement: The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the constitutionality of the so-called "Timely Justice Act" in a unanimous decision.

Challengers had argued the law would be an unconstitutional infringement on the court system's authority and separation of powers and violate due-process and equal-protection rights.

With some convicted murderers on death row for 30 years or more, lawmakers in 2013 touted the proposed changes as helping more quickly carry out justice. After Scott signed the bill, for example, House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, posted a Twitter message that said, "Several on death row need to start picking out their last meals."

A few justices, though, said the ruling wouldn't prevent them from stepping in and safeguarding a defendant's rights if necessary.

"(This) court is still constitutionally entrusted with the duty to issue a stay of execution if there is a meritorious post-conviction claim pending or, if at the time the warrant is signed, the defendant brings a successive post-conviction challenge that casts doubt on his or her guilt, the integrity of the judicial process, or the validity of the death sentence imposed. ... In my view, that remains the essential fail-safe mechanism this court may utilize when necessary to ensure that the ultimate punishment of the death penalty is inflicted in a manner that fully comports with the Constitution,'' wrote Justice Barbara Pariente, who was joined in a concurring opinion by Justices Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott signs a bill that would allow some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates and roll back the state's "differential tuition" law, then embarks on a campaign tour to underscore his support for higher education affordability

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: We are literally looking at an unleashing of a Wild, Wild West of potent marijuana products. -- Calvina Faye, executive director of Drug Free America and part of a new campaign to oppose a medical pot amendment set to be voted on in November.

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