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Amid protests, Florida legislators start session

March 4, 2014
Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — 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.

But the ceremonial start was overshadowed somewhat by loud protests coming from the same group that occupied the Capitol over the summer, demanding that legislators repeal the state's contentious "stand your ground" law.

"The House is ours," the protesters chanted at one point as they jumped up and down in the rotunda that separates the House and Senate.

The demonstration came shortly before Gov. Rick Scott was scheduled to give his "State of the State" speech. He is expected to lay out a modest agenda calling for more than $500 million in tax cuts.

During his opening day speech, House Speaker Will Weatherford called on legislators to let qualified Florida students pay in-state college tuition even if they are in the country illegally.

Similar proposals have been considered in the last decade, but they have never passed. Senate President Don Gaetz has already said he is opposed to the proposal.

Weatherford said 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."

During the next nine weeks, legislators plan to debate everything from guns to gambling.

They are not expected to repeal "stand your ground" despite the ongoing protests. Instead, 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 given a 20-year prison sentence after 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.

Weatherford and Gaetz have their own their own proposals to expand the use of private school vouchers and to offer additional incentives to military veterans living here.

The House plans to pass its own "Florida G.I. bill" later Tuesday. The Senate is expected to pass a package of bills aimed at cracking down on sex offenders.

"We will protect our children and we will scorch the earth against sexually violent predators," Gaetz said in his opening day speech.

Both Gaetz and Weatherford called for restricting retirement benefits for future public employees. The two Republicans contend it's a move needed to help stabilize the pension plan in the future, but the move has divided the Legislature and it's unclear if it will pass.



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