The Florida Legislature began its 2014 session by getting tougher on sexual predators and ended by getting softer on immigration issues.
In between, lawmakers largely had a feel-good session that will provide tax cuts, legalize low-THC medical marijuana, help members of the military get degrees and jobs and possibly raise the speed limit on highways to 75 mph.
“It was a whirlwind but it ended right. It was the best ending I’ve seen,” Republican Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, of Miami, said after the 60-day session ended late Friday. “We accomplished everything we said we’d accomplish.”
Of course, legislative sessions are always easier when there’s plenty of money, and the Legislature had a lot to work with as they passed a record $77.1 billion budget. And in an election year, lawmakers tend to get along a lot better, and there was a bipartisan spirit in many of the bills that were passed.
Gov. Rick Scott kept a low profile for much of the session, but he’ll get to brag about cutting motor vehicle registration fees and other tax breaks. He’ll also be able to woo Hispanic voters by supporting in-state college tuition for youth in the country illegally and a bill that will let a non-citizen from Mexico get his law license.
“It’s an election year so they embraced a lot of Democratic principles. That made it a little better,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, of Fort Lauderdale, who lamented that the Legislature didn’t expand Medicaid or make changes to the “stand your ground” law. The law came under scrutiny after Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
Some of the bills lawmakers passed would have been unthinkable in recent years – especially in the tea party year that swept Scott to victory in 2010.
Scott has previously taken a hard line against immigration issues, campaigning in support of an Arizona-like measure on illegal immigrants and last year vetoing a bill that would have allowed temporary licenses for young immigrants in the country unlawfully. He even previously came out against in-state tuition for non-citizens who were brought to the country as minors.
But he now vows to sign a bill that will do just that. And he’ll also sign a bill that will let a Mexican-born immigrant in the country illegally to a law license.
“It doesn’t matter what country you’re born in, what family or what zip code, you will have your shot to live the American dream,” Scott said after the session ended.
Scott already signed into law bills that will get tough on sexual predators. On the first day of session, lawmakers cited the death of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle, of Jacksonville, when supporting a bill that closes loopholes in a law that allows for the psychiatric review and civil commitment of sexually violent offenders even after they finish their prison sentences.
On the last day of session, another girl was mentioned as the inspiration for a bill that allows the use of low-THC marijuana to treat epilepsy and cancer patients. RayAnn Moseley, an 11-year-old girl who has up to 300 seizures a week, won the hearts of many skeptical lawmakers. Her parents hope to use the non-euphoric strain of marijuana to reduce her seizures. Supporters say it has worked to help children in Colorado. Scott said he will sign the bill.
“It was the most bipartisan effort on most issues that we’ve seen in a long time,” said Democratic Rep. Alan Williams, of Tallahassee. “I think this session, unlike most, we had some very good relationships.”
Among other items that passed were an abortion bill that bans the procedure if a doctor determines a fetus can survive outside the womb, a measure that creates a mandatory 50-year prison sentence for child rapists, a bill that allows people to fire warning shots without facing mandatory sentences under gun laws and an overhaul of the child welfare system.
“It was probably the most successful session I’ve been in in a long time,” said Sen. John Thrasher, who served as House speaker for two years ending in 2000. “Most of everything we passed was good public policy.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.