TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A python prohibition, bong ban, horse
thievery crackdown and no-limit poker games are included in some of
about 140 new laws going on the books Thursday in Florida along
with the state's new $70.4 billion budget.
      A couple major education laws also will go into effect. One will
add more math and science requirements for high school graduation.
Another will expand a voucher program that lets low-income students
go to private schools at public expense.
      It will become illegal for individuals to own Burmese pythons
and six other large, exotic reptile species. Many of the creatures
have escaped or been set loose by pet owners and that's upsetting
Florida's ecology as they prey almost unchecked on native birds and
animals.
      "We don't need any more snakes, especially ones that can grow
over 20 feet long, weigh hundreds of pounds and eat almost anything
they encounter," said the law's sponsor, Sen. Eleanor Sobel,
D-Hollywood.
      In rare instances, the victims include people. A pet Burmese
python last year squeezed a 2-year-old girl to death at her home in
Oxford, Fla.
      Owners who obtained their slithery pets before Thursday, though,
can keep them. The new law also enhances the state's ability to
prevent Internet sales of banned wildlife and increases penalties
for violations.
      The ban applies as well to reticulated, northern African,
southern African and Amethystine pythons, green anacondas and Nile
monitor lizards, but the main focus is on Burmese pythons.
      Estimates of their presence in the wild have ranged as high as
100,000, but the state's first python hunting season ended in April
without a single snake reported caught. Conservation officials said
unseasonably cold weather, instead, may have killed up to half the
pythons.
      Another new law was passed in response to an uptick in horse
thievery supplying a South Florida black market with the tender,
low-fat meat that sells for up to $40 a pound.
      Existing law bars the sale of horse meat for human consumption
unless clearly stamped, marked and described as being for that
purpose. The new statute adds prohibitions against transporting,
distributing and purchasing meat without such markings. It also
includes a minimum mandatory penalty of a year in jail and $3,500
fine and increases the maximum to five years in prison and a $5,000
fine.
      "In the Old West, they used to hang horse thieves," said state
Rep. Luis Garcia, a Miami Democrat who sponsored the law. "We no
longer practice vigilante justice, nor am I advocating as such, but
I will not sit back any longer and let this horrendous crime of
illegal horse slaughter continue."
      Selling various pipes, some also known as bongs, that can be
used to smoke illegal as well as legal substances will be banned in
Florida except at stores that mostly sell tobacco. Even before
going into effect, though, the "bong bill" drew a legal challenge
from 26 specialty stores, often called "head shops," from across
the state.
      Their June 18 suit filed in Tampa claims the law
unconstitutionally singles them out and cannot be validly enforced
because it lacks provisions for determining how much tobacco a
store sells in a year. Businesses are exempt if they get at least
75 percent of their gross sales from tobacco items and no more than
25 percent from the otherwise banned items. Violators could face up
to a year in jail.
      Lifting a maximum $100 buy-in for cash games at state-sanctioned
poker rooms is expected to attract professional gamblers and
televised tournaments to Florida. High-stakes games will become
legal at 23 poker rooms run by horse and dog tracks and jai alai
frontons. The new law also will let the Seminole Tribe lift limits
at its seven casinos.
      The new budget increases spending for the first time in four
economically challenging years but still includes cuts in many
areas and is propped up with $2.3 billion in federal stimulus
money.
      Some of the graduation requirements that become law Thursday
won't go into effect for years. Requirements for geometry, algebra
II, biology, chemistry and physics are being phased from this fall
through 2014 for entering freshmen.
      The law also will eliminate the much-maligned Florida
Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, for high school math and
science and replace it with end-of-course exams.
      Also going into effect is a law requiring middle school students
to take civics. Another will bar schools from infringing on the
religious freedom of students, staff and teachers, but some critics
say it's not needed because that's already the law.
      New criminal laws will require background checks of youth sports
coaches, mandate tracking of over-the-counter sales of ephedrine,
which can be used to make methamphetamine, and lift statutes of
limitation in criminal and civil sex abuse cases involving minors.
      Other new laws will set safety standards for tomatoes in the
wake of a false salmonella scare and make it harder to win
slip-and-fall lawsuits against businesses.