TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The three highest-profile figures involved in the 2013 legislative session saw their top priorities sewn up Wednesday night in a rapid-fire series of events that left a trail of unanswered legal questions and Democrats crying foul.
As the House waited through a second day of a computer program nicknamed "Mary" reading bills -- part of a Democratic procedural protest -- the Senate moved late Wednesday afternoon to amend a manufacturing sales tax exemption favored by Gov. Rick Scott onto a bill about economic development incentives (HB 7007).
The exemption would be good for three years, beginning in April 2014.
The bill was not subject to the quasi-filibuster in the House, which quickly approved the measure with a simple majority that raised questions about the legality of the vote.
The Senate vote was 33-4; the House backed the package on a 68-48 vote.
Moments later, Scott signed a campaign-finance bill (HB 569) that was one of the top priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and ethics legislation (SB 2) championed by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
Scott, who had voiced strong reservations about the campaign finance bill's provision to raise contribution limits to $3,000 for statewide candidates and $1,000 for other campaigns, did not explain his reasons for signing the bill Wednesday.
But he did issue a statement praising the approval of the sales-tax exemption.
"By removing the tax on manufacturing equipment, Florida businesses will now be able meet their full potential and finally be on a level playing field when competing against other states and countries," Scott said.
Speaking as the House moved toward passing the tax cut, Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, surmised that a "deal had gone down" by advancing the tax cut and another measure without questions or debate on the House floor.
But both Gaetz and Weatherford sidestepped questions about whether the moves were part of a quid pro quo among the three men.
"The governor never said it was a quid pro quo," Weatherford said shortly before Scott signed the bills. "He told us it was important to him. I think the word he utilized was 'goodwill.' I think both chambers and the governor's office in the plaza level are looking to build goodwill as we close out session."
Speaking to reporters on the Senate floor early Wednesday evening, Gaetz also noted that a House-Senate budget negotiating committee had also worked out a final deal on $480 million for teacher pay raises that were Scott's other top item.
"I hope he's pleased," he said. "And we're certainly pleased that he was willing to work with us to come to an accommodation on two issues that were very important to him. And we look forward to a successful end of the session, and for Speaker Weatherford's priorities and mine that have been approved by both houses to be signed into law."
House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, also hedged on whether a deal had been struck.
"We think that there may have been a meeting with the speaker and the governor, but we don't know what transpired, so we won't speculate," he said.
Asked whether he had met with the governor, Weatherford simply said: "I talk to the governor all the time."
Meanwhile, some members emerged from the House chambers expressing concerns about the legality of the 96-page omnibus measure that was rushed through the House with less than two-thirds majorities. The Florida Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to approve laws that would reduce local governments' authority to raise revenue or reduces the percentage of a state tax shared with counties and municipalities. There were also questions about whether a supermajority vote was needed because the bill includes a public records exemption.
The Florida Democratic Party quickly blasted the measure as unconstitutional.
"Today, with blatant disregard for the Florida Constitution, Governor Rick Scott and House Speaker Will Weatherford plotted to put the special interests ahead of the rules governing the Florida Legislature," said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the party. "This attempt to circumvent House procedure is a flagrant violation of their constitutional duty as lawmakers and elected officials."
Weatherford defended the vote, saying counsel opinion backed the move to advance a bill that includes local option taxes and public records exemptions without having to reach a required two-thirds majority.
"We looked into that very closely," Weatherford said. "We spoke with our attorneys and our staff. We do not believe it needs a two-thirds vote."
But Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he expects the bill will be challenged.
"We don't know exactly what was in it, we don't think there was a severability clause, but if it wasn't, that means the whole bill is in jeopardy," Thurston said.
A promised legal opinion from the House wasn't immediately delivered to reporters.
Instead, Weatherford's office issued a new statement reiterating his belief that the vote would stand.
"Who would sue to stop a tax cut and prevent job creation in Florida?" he said in statement. "The Florida House stands ready to fight for tax cuts and jobs."
The Senate also added a provision to the bill creating Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc., a non-profit corporation that would award money anticipated from Florida's $5.48 billion lawsuit against BP that was filed April 20
The non-profit, a priority of Gaetz, would spread lawsuit money out over a 30 year period to projects and programs in counties most impacted by the spill: Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Wakulla.
Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, said he had enough time to review the bill, but questioned the creation of the non-profit.
"I think it's a bad precedent we're setting," Beshears said. "We're counting our chickens before they're hatched when we're thinking about doing something with our money before we have any."
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