With the 2018 legislative session nearing its midpoint, lawmakers are doing their duty.
Dozens of bills are moving through committees, and, maybe most important, the House and Senate have drawn up initial budget plans that tip the scales at more than $87 billion.
But Florida’s political world doesn’t simply focus on the state Capitol during the annual 60-day session, as was apparent this week.
A Tallahassee federal judge issued a bombshell ruling about restoring the voting rights of felons who have done their time. Meanwhile, more than 400 miles to the south, Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis held a coming-out party for his gubernatorial campaign.
CLOSE, BUT YET SO FAR
First, the good news about the initial budget proposals that key House and Senate committees approved this week: The total amounts of the proposals are only about $100 million apart, a difference that really isn’t a big deal in the context of divvying up more than $87 billion.
“I think we’re in great shape,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said Wednesday after his committee unanimously passed the $87.3 billion Senate budget bill (SB 2500). “The overall numbers are very similar.”
But in the budget world, big numbers can be somewhat deceiving. That’s because the House and Senate will still have to agree on all of the details about how money should be spent.
In the coming weeks, House and Senate leaders will have to work out differences in several policy areas.
For example, the Senate wants to spend more money than the House on higher education, a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Meanwhile, the House, which has an overall $87.2 billion budget proposal, wants to set aside more money for school-choice programs, a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.
Also, the two chambers differ on health-care issues such as how the state pays hospitals to care for Medicaid patients.
The proposed budgets will go to the full House and Senate during the coming week and likely will be tweaked. That will set the stage for negotiations to try to agree on a final spending plan before the scheduled March 9 end of the legislative session.
NO MORE KOWTOWING?
Restoration of voting rights for ex-felons has long been a controversial issue in Florida. But a federal judge, in no uncertain times, ruled this week that Florida’s system of deciding whether rights should be restored is arbitrary and unconstitutional.
“Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in a 43-page ruling Thursday. “To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration. Until that moment (if it ever comes), these citizens cannot legally vote for presidents, governors, senators, representatives, mayors, or school-board members.”
Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis serve as the state’s clemency board, which determines whether rights should be restored. Under the system, ex-felons must wait five or seven years after finishing their sentences --- including probation, parole and fines --- before they can apply to have their rights restored, according to Walker’s ruling.
But applying doesn’t mean that Scott and the Cabinet members will agree to restore the felons’ rights. In his ruling, Walker focused heavily on what he saw as the arbitrariness of the system, which he ruled violated First Amendment rights and equal-protection rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
The voting-rights group Fair Elections Legal Network filed the lawsuit last year. Walker did not decide how the rights-restoration process should change and gave the plaintiffs and the state until Feb. 12 to file briefs on the issue.
But Scott’s office issued a statement late Thursday indicating it doesn’t plan to back down.
“The discretion of the clemency board over the restoration of felons’ rights in Florida has been in place for decades and overseen by multiple governors,” John Tupps, a Scott spokesman, said in the statement. “The process is outlined in Florida’s Constitution, and today’s ruling departs from precedent set by the United States Supreme Court.
“The governor believes that convicted felons should show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities. While we are reviewing today’s ruling, we will continue to defend this process in the court.”
Regardless of Walker’s ruling, voters will decide in November whether to approve a proposed constitutional amendment on the restoration issue.
The proposal, backed by a political committee known as Floridians for a Fair Democracy, seeks to automatically restore the voting rights of most felons who have served their sentences, completed parole or probation and paid restitution. Automatic restoration would not apply to murderers and sex offenders.
DESANTIS DIVES IN
As the 2018 elections draw closer, one of the most-watched issues will be how candidates are affected by their ties to President Donald Trump.
But as DeSantis formally launched his gubernatorial campaign this week during an event in Boca Raton, he touted his relationship with Trump.
“I want to thank the president for his support,” DeSantis said. “As we’ve seen in the aftermath of this tax bill, the president and his supporters in Congress, we’re keeping our word in getting the American economy moving again.”
That type of message could help with the Republican base, as DeSantis squares off with Putnam and probably Corcoran for the GOP nomination. But the Trump ties could be trickier in a general-election campaign.
Democrats quickly moved to make an issue of DeSantis’ relationship with Trump, who continues to suffer from low overall poll numbers.
“Congressman Ron DeSantis (R-Fox News) officially rolled out his campaign for governor with a speech that was ’light on policy’ but heavy on love for Donald Trump,” the Florida Democratic Party said in an email.
During his campaign kickoff, however, DeSantis also hit on some time-tested themes for Republicans, who have dominated state government for the past two decades.
“I’m proud to stand here today before you, as a veteran of our Armed Forces, as a principled conservative leader and with the support of our president, to be running for governor of Florida --- the greatest state in the union,” DeSantis said. “A governor needs to lead, and I pledge that I will work every day to secure Florida’s future by expanding economic opportunities, promoting innovation and education and keeping our streets and communities safe.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that the state’s system for restoring rights of ex-felons is unconstitutional.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Here, plaintiffs’ protected expressive and associational activities are at risk of viewpoint discrimination because the (clemency) board may defer restoration of rights for years --- or forever. Defendants (the state) cannot --- whether arbitrarily or motivated by political, racial, or religious bias --- kick the can down the road for so long that they violate former felons’ rights to free association and free expression without offending the Constitution.” --- U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, in his Thursday ruling on restoration of rights.