The buzz in the news might be about holiday displays in the Capitol and the postseason destination for the currently undefeated Florida State University football team. But a lot of state leaders have already turned their attention to what happens in the new year.
So while the Florida Prayer Network was preparing to put up a nativity scene in the Capitol, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner were making their lists and checking them twice -- but the lists were of committee chairs who will lead legislative meetings that start next month.
And as plans were made to bring a stack of beer cans back to the seat of Florida government as a Festivus display, Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad was making plans to vacate his seat as part of the turnover between terms in Gov. Rick Scott's administration.
But a court decision far away from all the holiday hubbub opened up the prospect of something far more significant than legislative leadership positions or the head of the Department of Transportation. Shortly after the new year, it appears that same-sex couples will be able to get married in Florida.
JUST (ABOUT TO BE) MARRIED?
In something that supporters and opponents have seen approaching for a while, it looks like Florida's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages is about to be lifted.
A federal appeals court this week rejected Attorney General Pam Bondi's request to at least temporarily extend Florida's ban on gay marriage -- possibly setting the stage for same-sex marriages to start in January.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in August ruled that the ban was unconstitutional but placed a stay on his decision to allow time for appeals. That stay is scheduled to expire Jan. 5. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned away a request by Bondi to keep the stay in place until appeals of Hinkle's ruling are finished.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which has represented a group of plaintiffs challenging the ban, said Wednesday afternoon same-sex marriages will be able to start Jan. 6 if no other attempts at extending the stay are successful. Also on Jan. 6, same-sex marriages from other states would be recognized in Florida, the ACLU said.
"Today, in denying the state's request to further delay the ruling, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the state's argument that allowing same-sex couples to marry and have their marriages recognized will cause harm to the state and refused to make these families wait any longer,'' ACLU attorney Daniel Tilley said in a prepared statement. "The court effectively ruled that the state does not have a likelihood of succeeding in its appeal."
Supporters of the ban, of course, vowed to continue the fight.
"We may grieve today, but we will not despair," said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, in a statement issued after the ruling. "We will not throw in the towel. We will not give up."
The ruling came Wednesday -- a bad day at the federal courthouse for the state. The 11th Circuit also rejected a Florida law pushed by Rick Scott that would require welfare applicants to submit to drug tests before they can receive benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
The 2011 law "offends the Fourth Amendment" protections from unreasonable searches by the government, a three-judge panel ruled in a 54-page opinion authored by Judge Stanley Marcus.
"Encouraging employability, protecting children, and conserving public funds are general -- and unquestionably legitimate -- public concerns," Marcus said. "But empirical evidence indicates these needs are not specific to or special for TANF applicants, nor is drug testing essential to ensuring the success of the TANF program as a whole."
Scott can either ask the 11th Circuit for an "en banc" review by the entire court or pursue an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
MUSICAL COMMITTEE CHAIRS:
Most Floridians who are concerned about rosters right now are poring over their fantasy football teams or keeping an eye on baseball's "hot stove" season. But in the immediate environs of the Capitol and among the lobbying corps and advocates scattered across the state, the roster of committee chairmen for the House and Senate might have been watched just as closely.
The House was up first, with Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, announcing the leaders of 16 panels for the House. Committee meetings are scheduled to begin next month.
"The brand that marks this House is that every word, action, thought, and deed is all about Florida," Crisafulli said. "I believe the individuals I have appointed to these leadership positions will truly put Floridians first."
Some of the appointments were already known: Crisafulli had already announced that Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Land O' Lakes Republican slated to become speaker after the 2016 elections, would chair the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, while Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, will chair the House Rules, Calendar and Ethics Committee, which sets the chamber's agenda.
But others had not been publicly unveiled. Rep. Jose Oliva -- a Miami Lakes Republican in line for the speakership after Corcoran -- will chair the House Economic Affairs Committee.
Other highlights include Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, chairing the Health and Human Services Committee; Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, taking over the Judiciary Committee; and Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, returning as chairwoman of the House Education Committee.
For his part, Gardiner looked to experience in his selections. Of the 24 existing Senate committees and subcommittees that will continue into the legislative session that begins in March, 13 will be led by the chairmen who oversaw those panels in 2014.
"We have many senators who have a great deal of institutional knowledge that has been a great benefit to the Senate," wrote Gardiner, R-Orlando, in a memo to lawmakers. "For this reason, some senators are assigned to familiar policy or budget areas. Other senators are being called upon to utilize their talents in new areas for the best interest of the Senate."
There were a few new faces. While Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, will remain as chairman of the committee overseeing elementary and secondary education, that committee will no longer deal with higher-education issues. The reconstituted Higher Education Committee will be chaired by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.
Meanwhile, Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who served the past two years as president, will take over the gavel in the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee, formerly headed by Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is now Senate majority leader.
PRASAD HITS THE ROAD FROM DOT;
Ananth Prasad might not be driving off into the sunset, per se, but the state's transportation secretary is going to travel elsewhere. Prasad, head of the Florida Department of Transportation since April 2011, will leave his job Jan. 2, according to the governor's office.
Prasad becomes the third of Scott's agency heads to step down since the general election, which often ushers in a period of change in an administration.
With Scott pushing to expand parts of Florida's transportation infrastructure, the agency under Prasad has grown from a $7 billion operation to $10.1 billion in the current year.
"Secretary Prasad has also helped Florida become a major force in international trade because of his commitment to expanding our Florida ports and airports," Scott said in a prepared statement. "I am grateful for Secretary Prasad's service to our state, and we will continue making our transportation system a top priority as we select another excellent leader for this department."
News about Prasad followed announcements that Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard were retiring.
Scott now has at least five new leaders to appoint as he gets ready to start a second term. The Florida Department of Children and Families and the Department of Juvenile Justice are operating under interim secretaries. Some say Scott might already have the right people in DCF Interim Secretary Mike Carroll and DJJ Interim Secretary Christy Daly.
"I can say that both (Carroll and Daly) have done an excellent job and have the full confidence of their departments behind them," said Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who has chaired the House Healthy Families Subcommittee during the past two years. "But of course, its up to the governor."
STORY OF THE WEEK: A federal appeals court denied Attorney General Pam Bondi's request for an extended stay in a legal challenge to Florida's ban on same-sex marriage, clearing the way for those weddings to begin as soon as next month.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "The proud tradition continues forward for another year. I'm trying to be just a little more professional this year. I'm going on Craigslist to see if I can find a mariachi band to bring along." -- Chaz Stevens, a Deerfield Beach resident who plans to again sponsor a Festivus pole at the Capitol to protest religious holiday displays.