A state Legislature this week voted to:
— Legalize some medical marijuana use,
— Approve in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants,
— Reject a top priority of the gun lobby,
— Reject a school-choice voucher bill,
— And protect government workers by rejecting pension reform.
This isn’t Sacramento, Albany or Springfield, Illinois, we’re talking about.
This was Republican-run Tallahassee, Florida, where the GOP re-brand is well underway, six months before midterm elections.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who in 2010 campaigned on bringing Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants to the Sunshine State, yesterday stood in front of a crowd of undocumented students, pledging to sign a bill that would grant them lower tuition. He also said he would sign a bill legalizing a strain of medical marijuana for cancer patients and epileptic children.
“It’s an exciting day for every student that dreams of a college education,’’ Scott, 61, told reporters yesterday in remarks that repeated the word “dream” at least six times. Several “Dreamers”— immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children — stood behind him. The Legislature passed the bill today and sent it to Scott’s desk.
State Democrats quickly pointed out that in 2011, Scott said he “completely” opposed allowing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, called it a “deathbed conversion” and pointed out that Scott vetoed a bill last year that would’ve allowed the same students to get drivers licenses.
“He reversed his position from just a year ago in an election year,” she said in a phone interview. “I think the Hispanic voters that care about in-state tuition for Dreamers will see right through it.”
The change of heart in Florida is reflective of a pivot away from Tea Party ideals that helped usher Scott into office and characterized the Florida Legislature in recent years as it passed bills restricting abortion, cutting early voting days, expanding gun rights and reducing spending.
Lawmakers today will vote to send Scott a $77.1 billion budget, the state’s largest spending plan ever. It’s up 11.5 percent from the $69 billion than the first budget Scott signed in 2011.
Florida will be the first state in the South to legalize any medical marijuana use when Scott signs the cannabis bill. The state’s voters will decide on a more expansive ballot referendum to legalize medical marijuana for other diseases in November. Also likely to be on the ballot, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, who is leading Scott in the polls as he runs to get his old job back.
Crist has also announced his support for the Dreamers tuition bill, reversing an earlier position.
The Legislature also appears to have killed a bill backed by the National Rifle Association, which would have allowed unlicensed people to carry firearms during mandatory evacuations. Florida, the first state to pass a Stand Your Ground law, is seen as a testing ground for the NRA.
As the annual legislative session comes to a close today, other bills that are dead or on life support show the pivot to the middle in a state President Barack Obama carried twice.
The Legislature sided with government workers in rejecting a Republican-backed bill to reform the state’s pension system, and is vacillating on a proposal to expand a school voucher program endorsed by Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor who’s considering a presidential run. The bill could still pass today in a watered down version from its original.
Florida’s Republican-led Legislature hasn’t gone completely abandoned its conservative ideals, not by a long shot. It passed bills this year to expand the state’s Stand Your Ground law, restrict abortion and supported a $500 million package of tax cuts.