Floridians who threaten to use a gun or even fire a warning shot could avoid criminal prosecution under a law signed Friday by Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott also a controversial expansion of eligibility for the state's de facto school-voucher system and 57 other bills Friday, nearly completing the work of deciding which measures from the spring legislative session to approve.
The voucher provisions are part of a wide-ranging, 140-page education bill (SB 850) that is also aimed at helping parents of students with disabilities pay for educational services. The measure also makes changes in middle school and career education.
The changes to the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides tax breaks to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities that then pay for children to go to private schools, was a major priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. Weatherford started the 2014 session pushing for even more sweeping changes, but the Senate balked.
Under the new law, a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year will be eligible for at least a partial scholarship, a nearly $20,000 boost from the current $43,568 annual income limit. The value of each individual scholarship would also rise.
In a concession to Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the bill also changes how the state measures the learning of students in the voucher program. But those students will still not be required to take the state test developed for public schools.
The Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, ripped Scott's decision to sign the bill in a statement issued Friday.
"Public schools face a strict accountability regimen that includes frequent testing, school grades and punitive actions for not meeting state mandates," said FEA Vice President Joanne McCall. "But taxpayer dollars flowing to voucher schools require very little accountability and can in no way be compared to what is required for public schools."
But supporters said the bill would benefit students by allowing parents to have more control over their children's education.
"Florida’s neediest students, both students trapped in schools that are failing them and students with special needs, will have more access to programs that will help them succeed," said Christopher Hudson, state director of the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group.
Scott also signs two gun bills and juvenile sentencing bill
The so-called "warning shot" bill allows people to show guns and fire warning shots if they feel threatened. The bill (HB 89) adds immunity for threats to use force to Florida’s "stand your ground" self-defense law.
The House sponsor, Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, has said the bill was inspired by the case of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who was faces 60 years in prison under the 10-20-Life sentencing law for firing a warning shot during a domestic dispute.
Democrats in both chambers tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to remove a provision allowing records to be expunged if people who claim "stand your ground" are found innocent. They said keeping open the records would make the law’s success or failure easier to track.
But Republicans argued that people who are forced to defend themselves shouldn’t have a criminal record as a result.
Scott signed another gun bill with a nickname, the “Pop Tart” bill, so called because of its connection to reports of a Maryland 7-year-old who was suspended from school for chewing his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun.
The bill (HB 7029) is aimed at preventing schoolchildren from being disciplined for simulating guns while playing or for wearing clothes that depict firearms. Supporters of the bill, including the National Rifle Association, said it would bring "common sense" to school zero-tolerance disciplinary policies.
Also Friday, Scott signed a measure (HB 7035) to revamp sentencing for juveniles who are convicted of murder or other serious felonies.
The bill stems from U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2010 and 2012 that put restrictions on life sentences for juveniles. It calls, in part, for judicial hearings and sentencing standards that would vary depending on the nature of the crimes.
Those measures were among dozens signed Friday by Scott, ranging from a bill that would overhaul the process for selecting a state poet laureate (HB 513) to a proposal dealing with government ethics requirements (SB 846).
There are still four bills awaiting Scott's signature or veto: SB 102, which would toughen penalties for drivers who leave the scene after serious traffic accidents; HB 225, dealing with child safety devices in motor vehicles; HB 561, relating to attorneys for dependent children with special needs; and SB 1666, designed to revamp Florida’s child welfare system.