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Scott Signs Controversial Adoption Bill

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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday signed 48 bills, including a measure sure to earn him some political heartburn.

The bill (HB 7013) will provide $5,000 payments to government workers who adopt foster children, with the payments increasing to $10,000 for adopting children with special needs. But the bill also sparked fierce protests over what one critic called its "poison pill" --- a provision repealing the state's decades-old ban on gay adoption.

An outcry by social conservatives about repealing the ban led the House this spring to approve another measure --- dubbed the "conscience protection" bill --- that would have protected faith-based adoption agencies from lawsuits or loss of licensure for refusing to place children with gays. But the "conscience protection" bill did not pass the Senate.

Scott sought to bridge the divide in a letter Thursday that accompanied his signing of HB 7013. He noted that the gay adoption ban hasn't been enforced since 2010, when the 3rd District Court of Appeal struck it down. However, he wrote, "It is my hope and expectation that the Legislature will take future action to make clear that we will support private, faith-based operators in the child welfare system and ensure that their religious convictions continue to be protected."

Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who was the Senate sponsor of HB 7013, indicated he was elated --- and grateful --- that Scott signed the measure.

"I know that there was political pressure to veto the bill," Gaetz said. "I know there were people who were passionate, and I'm sure very well intentioned, who believe that one line in this bill was enough to encourage the governor to veto what was otherwise truly an expression of hope and support by the state of Florida for hundreds and hundreds of hard-to-place kids."

Meanwhile, Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who supported the "conscience protection" bill and is one of the most-prominent social conservatives in the Legislature, pointed to the difficult decision that faced Scott.

"The governor certainly articulates the conundrum we find ourselves in," Baxley said. "I don't hate anybody. I'm not phobic or afraid of anybody. I simply can't morally run over my Biblical beliefs about homosexuality. And I still believe that every child deserves a mom and a dad."

John Stemberger, president of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council, had a harsher assessment of the bill. Stemberger tweeted that the governor had signed a "bad homosexual adoption bill putting faith-based agencies at risk."

But Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who played a key role in getting the gay-adoption ban repealed, said in a prepared statement he was "glad the governor did the right thing."

"This is a momentous day and an important advance for civil rights,'' said Richardson, who is gay. "It's also great news for children who will be adopted into loving homes."

Scott signed the adoption bill just hours after formally receiving it. His office released a list early Thursday evening of the 48 bills he had signed.

Among them were 13 "claim" bills that stem from injuries or deaths suffered because of the actions of government agencies. Many of the claim bills were a long time in coming. The bills were needed because of sovereign-immunity laws that typically shield government agencies from paying large amounts in lawsuits. Claim bills effectively override those limits and direct that larger amounts be paid.

As an example, the city of Tallahassee settled for $900,000 with Mark Sawicki, who was hit by a city truck while riding a bicycle in 2009, and his wife. But the city has only paid $200,000, requiring Legislative approval (HB 3523) for the rest of the money.

Other bills signed Thursday included a measure (HB 225) --- known as the All-American Flag Act --- that requires U.S. and Florida flags purchased by governments in Florida to be made from materials grown, produced and manufactured in the United States.

Also, Scott approved continuing efforts to crack down on human trafficking in the state. An anti-trafficking measure (HB 465) will increase penalties for "soliciting, inducing, enticing or procuring another to commit prostitution."

In another high-profile issue, Scott signed a bill (HB 7021) that could help reduce dangerous interactions between bears and humans. That bill will increase penalties for people charged a fourth time with feeding bears and alligators not in captivity. The charge would be a third-degree felony. Currently, a fourth offense of illegally feeding wildlife within a 10-year period is a first-degree misdemeanor.

The bill, a wide-ranging effort that makes a number of changes for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, comes as the commission is expected to vote in two weeks on whether to allow limited hunting of bears for the first time in more than 20 years.

Scott on Thursday also vetoed one bill (HB 217), which would have modified laws related to the licensing and regulation of engineers who want to practice structural engineering.

The News Service Of Florida's Margie Menzel And Jim Turner contributed to this report.

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