TALLAHASSEE — Major pieces of legislation passed during Gov. Rick Scott's first term, and with his blessing, are winding their way through the courts as critics try to maintain the status quo on a number of fronts.
With decisions and arguments last week on issues from drug testing to the separation of church and state, federal and state judges are the latest actors to take the stage in a play that began in January when Scott took the helm of the nation's fourth largest state on a simple platform of reducing government spending, streamlining regulations and creating jobs.
To make that happen, lawmakers have passed laws to abolish teacher tenure, roll back unemployment benefits, privatize some prisons and make public employees pay into their pension. Scott has issued executive orders. All have been challenged in court.
A federal judge in Orlando on Monday put a halt to a Florida law passed earlier his year amid much fanfare that requires people applying for federal cash assistance to pass a drug test before receiving any money.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union/Florida on behalf of a University of Central Florida student who refused to take the test when he applied for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, a federal program that provides cash assistance to families with children.
In justifying her ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Mary Scriven said the testing procedure could cause irreparable harm to recipients, who are required to pay for the tests and are barred from collecting benefits for at least six months if they fail.
Further, Scriven ruled that the ACLU has a good chance of prevailing in its lawsuit, which says the drug tests are suspicion-less searches that have been ruled unconstitutional in other situations.
The U.S. Supreme Court in a 1997 decision threw out a Georgia law requiring candidates for state office to certify they had passed a drug test. Since then, a federal court in Michigan threw out that state's attempt to require all welfare recipients to be tested. Despite the court rulings, Scott's staff remains confident the law will stand.
"Drug testing welfare recipients is just a common-sense way to ensure that welfare dollars are used to help children and get parents back to work," said Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Rick Scott. "The governor obviously disagrees with the decision and he will evaluate his options regarding when to appeal."
Meanwhile, a state circuit judge heard arguments last week on whether a proposed constitutional amendment making it easier for taxpayer funds to go to religious institutions should go on the ballot in November 2012. A lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association says the ballot language is misleading.
The proposed amendment deletes a provision in the state constitution that says public funds cannot be used to aid religious institutions, a prohibition known as the "no-aid provision." The proposal then adds a sentence saying the state can't deny funds to a person or entity based on religious identity or belief. The issue predates Scott. The ability of state money to go toward private and religious groups for educational or social services has been debated since Jeb Bush became governor more than a decade ago.
If approved, critics say, the proposed amendment would force the state to direct public taxpayer dollars toward religious institutions, opening the door for expansions of programs such as private school vouchers and weakening the state's historic separation of church and state.
The outcomes of the pending cases will largely determine the success of Scott's first term. The jury, as it is often said, is still out.
Michael Peltier, the Daily News Tallahassee correspondent, can be reached at email@example.com.