Gov. Rick Scott signs bills on vouchers, guns and sports stadiums

From pro sports to Pop-Tarts, Gov. Rick Scott signed dozens of new laws Friday, including two NRA-supported gun bills and an expansion of school vouchers.

The voucher program, part of a 140-page education bill (SB 850), expands the use of tax credit scholarships so that low-income children can attend private schools. It was a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and was supported by former Gov. Jeb Bush’s think tank, the Foundation for Florida’s Future.

The bill was opposed by the Florida PTA, the Florida NAACP Conference, the Florida Education Association teacher union and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), who said it would drain resources from public schools.

“(Scott) did not care enough to listen to the concerns of hundreds of thousands of people,” said Mindy Gould of Miami-Dade, the Florida PTA’s legislative chair.

Under the bill, a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year will be eligible for at least a partial scholarship, going up nearly $20,000 above the current income limit of $43,568.

Scott also signed into law increased penalties for harming a fetus while committing a crime, a response to the case of a Tampa man who tricked his girlfriend into taking an abortion drug that resulted in a miscarriage.

Florida joins 23 other states that allow offenders to be charged separately for causing the death of a fetus at any stage of development.

“It’s recognizing the trauma that occurs to the woman when she is a victim of crime and, in the process, loses her unborn baby,” said the sponsor, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

On guns, Scott signed the so-called Pop-Tart bill (HB 7029) that allows children to play with simulated guns in school without fear of punishment. A boy in Maryland was suspended for nibbling a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun.

That bill had the backing of the National Rifle Association, as did a second gun law, called the “warning shot” bill.

That bill (HB 89) was intended to allow people to use threatened force, such as a warning shot, as part of the “stand your ground” defense, but some law enforcement officials say the bill as written is confusing and will be difficult to enforce.

“The governor was in a very tough spot,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “It leaves people in the situation where if they do defend themselves in their home, they have to meet a heightened standard with Stand Your Ground. It’s a mess. I hope we can fix it next year.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, said it was inspired by the case of Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville, who faces 60 years in prison under Florida’s 10-20-Life sentencing law for firing a warning shot in a domestic dispute.

NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer dismissed criticism from sheriffs.

“They are more interested in doing what’s convenient for them as opposed to protecting the rights of the people,” Hammer said.

Hammer said the Pop-Tart law “protects children from the irrational behavior of school administrators.”

Another gun-related bill Scott signed (HB 523) allows people to apply for concealed weapons permits at county tax collectors’ offices.

Scott also signed a bill that helps a former Arcadia man receive more than $1 million for being wrongfully incarcerated for 27 years. The bill (HB 227) removed a technicality that prevented James Richardson from seeking compensation in a case in which a babysitter later confessed to killing his seven children.

Scott also signed a bill (HB 7095) that enables pro sports franchises to compete for sales tax subsidies to pay for renovations. Three new projects will be eligible to compete for $7 million in tax breaks next year: two pro soccer stadiums proposed for Miami and Orlando and Daytona International Speedway.

The jobs-minded governor said the bill will create “more jobs and opportunities for Florida families,” but Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group of the Koch brothers, urged Scott to veto the bill, calling it “an irresponsible use of tax dollars” and saying that up to $200 million could be paid out over 30 years.

Scott also signed bills that require lobbyists to register at the state’s five water management districts (SB 846); provide ID cards to all Florida-born inmates when they leave prison (HB 53); create new specialty license tags for fallen law enforcement officers, the Florida Sheriffs Association, Keiser University and Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center (SB 132); and rename the Florida Parole Commission the Florida Commission on Offender Review (SB 1636).

Herald/Times Staff writers Tia Mitchell, Kat McGrory and the News Service of Florida contributed to this story.