Session starts with speeches, protests, flowers

Headline Goes Here

The Legislature began its annual 60-day session Tuesday amid pomp, circumstances and lots of flowers.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida lawmakers opened their annual session with speeches and ceremonial pomp Tuesday, tasked by their governor to grant pay raises to teachers, slash taxes to manufacturers and take other steps to help a rebounding economy.

And, yes, even a little bit of work marked the kickoff of the 60-day session that began with ceremonial gestures and peaceful protests. The centerpiece of the first day was Gov. Rick Scott's State of the State speech earlier Tuedsay in which he repeatedly used the refrain "it's working" to insist his policies were turning around Florida's economy.

The Republican governor urged legislators to embrace his priorities of granting a $2,500 teacher pay raise and creating more incentives for manufacturers and business to come to Florida. But legislators were also scheduled to take up major legislation within hours.

The Florida Senate was planning to pass a sweeping ethics package intended to crack down on errant public officials, while the House was scheduled to pass measures intended to restore confidence in the state's elections system.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, looking out over rows of flowers adorning lawmakers' desks, opened the session with a brief speech pledging to pass measures dealing with ethics and elections and the state's university system.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, also vowed to pass a law that would grant in-state tuition rates to the children of immigrants who are in the country illegally. A federal court last fall ruled that charging higher tuition to those students violated their equal protection rights. The state decided against appealing the ruling.

"If you're born in America, you're an American," Weatherford said. "And to hold any other view completely contradicts everything that our country was founded upon."

But Weatherford also strongly reiterated his opposition to the expansion of Medicaid even though the move puts him at direct odds with Scott and with Democrats.

The 33-year-old legislator called the decision to offer health care to nearly 1-million low income Floridians a social experiment "destined to fail." Medicaid expansion is a key portion of the federal health care overhaul pushed by President Barack Obama.

"This inflexible plan, thrust upon us by the federal government, is not aimed at strengthening the safety net," he said. "It pushes a social ideology at the expense of our future."

The opening day usually guarantees a contingent of protesters. And they were present Tuesday.

About 100 college students and others filled one corner of the Capitol plaza, holding signs that said, "The state is ours," ''I am human" and "3/5 no more," a reference to a constitutional compromise that counted three-fifths of slaves for purposes of representation.

They were part of the Dream Defenders, a group that grew out of a protest march on the Sanford Police Department after the death of Trayvon Martin. The teenager was shot and killed in February 2012 by a community watchman in his father's neighborhood. The group is interested in a gamut of issues, including immigration and police brutality.

"We're here to demand everything that was promised to us: justice, common defense, liberty," said University of Central Florida activist Marie Paul of Orlando, echoing the preamble to the Constitution. "Gov. Scott, where is our justice, our tranquility?"

"I'm like you," she continued, breaking into tears. "I struggle like you."

Others more openly referred to Martin's shooting and criticized Florida's controversial self-defense law also known as the "stand your ground" law. Florida legislators are not expected to tinker with the measure this year.

The protesters then moved upstairs before the State of the State address, forming a gauntlet between the doors to the Senate and House chambers. They began singing and chanting in Spanish and English, including "Ain't no power like the power of the people!"

As senators filed out to the joint session between the two lines of demonstrators, they shouted, "The state is ours, the state is ours!"

As Gov. Scott approached the House chamber door, the crowd outside began singing, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it's won." Scott glanced over, grinned and waved a couple of times before going in.

Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.