TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida legislators opened their annual 60-day session on Tuesday with legislative leaders vowing to cut taxes, expand the use of private school vouchers and make changes to the state's pension system.
The first day, which is usually confined to speeches and ceremony, did get overshadowed briefly as protesters began to chant and sing in the rotunda that separates the House and Senate. The protesters were part of the same group that occupied the Capitol this past summer and demanded a repeal of the state's contentious "stand your ground" law.
Still legislators did manage to get down to business by the end of the first day.
The Senate passed package of bills designed to strengthen sexual predator laws, while the House passed one that requires state colleges and universities to charge military veterans in-state tuition rates. Both were passed with bipartisan support.
"We will protect our children and we will scorch the earth against sexually violent predators," said Senate President Don Gaetz about the laws aimed at sex offenders.
During the next nine weeks, legislators plan to debate everything from guns to gambling although there are signs that some contentious issues may get sidestepped during an election year. Lawmakers are also expected to pass a tax cut package of $500 million being sought by Gov. Rick Scott.
The Republican-controlled Legislature is not expected to repeal "stand your ground" despite the ongoing protests. The law allows people to use deadly force if they feel threatened.
Instead of repealing it, they are likely to pass a bill that would allow people who fire warning shots to avoid lengthy prison sentences.
The bill was partially inspired by Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years for firing a gun near her estranged husband. Alexander's conviction was thrown out by an appeals court and she is scheduled to have a new trial.
The state's two legislative leaders on the opening day touted their own proposals to expand the use of private school vouchers and to restrict retirement benefits for future public employees. Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford contend it's a move needed to help stabilize the pension plan in the future, but it has divided the Legislature and it's unclear if it will pass.
While the two leaders concur on vouchers and changes to the state pension, they are divided on whether to let qualified Florida students pay in-state college tuition rates even if they are in the country illegally. It's an issue several states are grappling with.
Weatherford said in his opening day speech that it was "hurting" kids to force them to pay higher tuition rates if they were brought to the United States illegally by their parents.
"It makes no sense fiscally, it makes no sense economically, and it makes no sense morally," Weatherford said. "Because we should never punish a child for the mistakes of their parents."
Similar proposals have been considered in the last decade, but they have never passed. Gaetz has already said he is opposed to the proposal, although the Republican senator pushing the bill maintains he has enough voters right now to pass the bill.
Scott has been non-committal about the proposal and said he's "considering" it. He told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he remains concerned about higher tuition rates for all families and that's why he's pushing to repeal laws that allow universities to raise tuition above the rate set annually by the Legislature.
"Our families can't afford it anymore," Scott said.
There was little partisan rancor during the first day, although there were protests both inside and outside the Capitol. Shortly after Gaetz launched into his speech a group of 50 or so young demonstrators began to sing and chant in the rotunda.
The protest was organized by the Dream Defenders, which was formed in the wake of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. The group occupied the Capitol for more than a month this past summer after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges in Martin's death.
"We did this last year, and we want to do this every year to offer voices from our community, the African-American and Hispanic communities," said Curtis Hierro, field director of the operation.
Associated Press writer Steve Miller contributed to this report.
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