TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida legislators return to the state Capitol on Tuesday for a 60-day session that will likely focus on tax cuts, spending and school vouchers, but avoid many of the contentious issues that sparked partisan rancor and fierce debate in the last few years.
The tone for the session will likely be set by Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to ask the Republican-controlled Legislature to back his election-year agenda of tax cuts and keeping tuition rates at their current levels.
Florida lawmakers between now and early May are expected to cover everything from guns to gambling and whether or not to overhaul the state's massive pension system for state workers.
While the first day is usually long on ceremony, the Florida Senate plans to pass bills intended to crack down on sex offenders. The main goal of the proposed laws will be to strengthen the Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows for the civil commitment of sexual predators once they finish their prison terms.
Still legislators may wind up pushing off some items to avoid controversies that could harm Scott's bid for re-election. Scott, who had never run for office before 2010, is seeking a second term though battling consistently low poll numbers.
Scott has yet to weigh in publically this year on whether he favors any of the gambling proposals under consideration, or if he is willing to back a push by legislative leaders to limiting the type of retirement benefits that future public employees can receive.
House Speaker Will Weatherford said he was comfortable with Scott's cautious approach.
"We would love to have the governor's public support, but I think we respect the fact he wants to sit back and wait to see what the bills actually look like," Weatherford said.
Scott will use his speech to press for more than $500 million in tax and fee cuts he's seeking this year. The governor wants to roll back auto registration fees that were increased back in 2009 when Democratic challenger Charlie Crist was governor. He is also seeking a break in taxes charged on commercial rents and he wants to expand the state's existing back-to-school sales tax holiday.
"As I tell the hard-working people of Florida as I travel our state: We want you to keep more of the money you earn. Because it's your money," reads one except of his speech.
The governor also wants to keep college tuition rates flat again this year. Scott vetoed a proposed tuition hike in 2013 and his office tried unsuccessfully to get universities to ignore a provision in state law that requires tuition to go up by the rate of inflation.
Scott in his speech will ask legislators to repeal laws that allow universities to raise tuition above rates set by legislators. Legislative leaders have said they are willing to roll back the rate from the current 15 percent to 6 percent.
Scott will say that "undoing" the tuition laws is "another way we can keep higher education affordable and accessible.
Weatherford acknowledged that legislators need to get tuition rates "under control" but he defended the idea of letting universities have some flexibility to raise tuition rates without legislative approval.
The final day before the session started included scores of fundraisers by legislators who will not be able to collect checks once the session. It also included activist groups holding rallies to stress their priorities.
Several hundred people participated in a "Moral Monday" event modeled after similar protests in North Carolina.
House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston said the idea was to shine a light "on issues that matter" but have been ignored by Republicans. Some of the issues cited by those at the NAACP sponsored event included expansion of the state's Medicaid program and restoration of voting rights for ex-convicts. Neither is expected to be addressed by legislators this session.
"Florida is a really divided state," Thurston said. "So, if we let leaders that only represent a portion of the state control the agenda, then you've got the wishes of so many Floridians that are going unmet."
The Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group aligned with many tea party causes, held its own rally attended by GOP politicians, including by Weatherford. The group is backing Scott's call for tax cuts, as well as the push by legislative leaders to alter the pension plan for state workers.
Kareem Copeland contributed to this report.
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