TALLAHASSEE -- Bills limiting lawsuits against automakers and giving the state’s agriculture commissioner authority over school food programs became law Thursday with Gov. Rick Scott’s signature.
The Republican governor also vetoed a bill (SB 1992) that would have exempted some volunteers from criminal background screenings required for those who work with state-funded social service programs that serve the elderly, children and people with disabilities.
“That is a risk that is not worth taking,” Scott wrote in his veto message.
The lawsuit measure (SB 142) will make it more difficult for injured people to win product liability damages from automakers and other manufacturers. It will allow juries to hear evidence, previously prohibited, of other factors that may have contributed to those injuries besides alleged product defects.
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The Florida Chamber of Commerce issued a statement praising the law as a step in the right direction and adding that “more work is needed to repair Florida’s broken legal system.”
The school nutrition law (SB 1312) was a top priority for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. It shifts oversight of lunch and other food programs to his department from the Department of Education.
Putnam said in a statement that it will mean more Florida-grown fresh fruit and vegetables for students.
“We’re going to help Florida’s children build healthier eating habits, and we’re going to take on the challenges of the childhood obesity epidemic,” Putnam said.
The State Board of Education had discussed the idea of limiting sugary drinks in schools, but it no longer will be able to do that as the new law gives Putnam sole authority over school nutrition.
Concerning his veto of the screening exemption, Scott noted the bill also would have established a statewide interagency background screening workgroup, which he favored.
The governor wrote that he’ll issue an executive order to create that panel and direct it to work toward the goals outlined in the bill. Those include developing a plan to streamline background screening across all state agencies.
Scott also signed a bill (SB 1128) to prevent local governments from diverting surplus funds in their employee pension plans to other purposes. It also will require them to disclose the value of their retirement plans and put that information on a state website.
The governor went to Orlando to sign the local pension bill. While there he also held a ceremonial signing for another retirement bill (SB 2100), which he officially signed last month. It will require teachers, state workers and many local government employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay to the Florida Retirement System.
Scott, who had pushed for a larger 5 percent contribution, estimates the law will save the state and local governments $2 billion in the first year.
The Florida Education Association this week filed a lawsuit challenging the law, claiming it violates the contract rights of existing public employees as well as a state constitutional provision on collective bargaining.
A judge has scheduled a hearing for next Thursday on the teachers union’s request to put employee contributions in an interest-bearing account until the case is resolved so the money can go back to them if the law is struck down. The case is expected to wind up in the Florida Supreme Court.