TALLAHASSEE — A rush by Florida Republicans to shield businesses from lawsuits linked to COVID-19 is sparking growing rancor with Democrats, as House leaders used procedural moves to cut off debate and sideline attempts to change the high-profile legislation.
The House’s version of the legislation was muscled through its final committee Tuesday night, ensuring it could become one of the first measures passed during the legislative session that will start March 2.
But a decision by House Judiciary Chairman Daniel Perez, R-Miami, to shelve without discussion five amendments proposed by Democrats has irked some Judiciary Committee members and caused others who were leaning toward supporting the bill (HB 7) to back away.
Perez allowed debate on an amendment proposed by Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, that would have named in the bill some public-health guidelines that businesses should follow to receive immunity.
Though he allowed discussion on Driskell’s proposal, Perez ruled that it couldn’t be voted on and cited COVID-19 protocols issued by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, about deadlines for filing amendments.
After a terse exchange with Driskell and Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, over timeliness, Perez blocked the five other amendments Democrats wanted to offer and did not allow them to be read into the record.
Perez told The News Service of Florida after the meeting that no rules required him to allow committee members to discuss the amendments and that he sidelined debate to keep his committee in order.
“After I quickly noticed the first amendment was not going to go in a respectful manner, I kept everything in line moving forward,” he said.
But the decision irked Rep. Ramon Alexander, a Tallahassee Democrat who serves on the panel.
“I“m one of the most reasonable, fair individuals in this process. I work across the aisles. I am bipartisan. But I am also making significant sacrifices to be here,” Alexander said. “So if people are traveling around the state — and I know I’m local but I have kids at home and I’m exposing them to COVID — and we can’t have a discussion and a vote on an amendment, what is the purpose of having a Legislature or being a member of the Legislature in the first place? I feel real strong about that.”
At the center of the procedural dispute was whether House rules or the COVID-19 protocol issued by Sprowls for January and February committee meetings should guide procedures.
Democratic committee members filed the amendments after a 6 p.m. Monday deadline that carried out the COVID-19 protocols issued last month by Sprowls. That directive said committee chairmen and subcommittee chairmen would ask that everyone file amendments no later than 6 p.m. the day before meetings.
House rules, though, do not put time constraints on amendments that are filed by members of the committees considering legislation.
Driskell has asked that the issue be reviewed by House Rules Chairman Paul Renner, R- Palm Coast, in consultation with the Rules Committee’s ranking minority member, Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura.
“The rules did not preclude Rep. Diamond or myself or any member of that committee filing an amendment up to or even during that committee. The rules allow us to write up an amendment by hand,” Driskell told the News Service following the meeting.
Moreover, Driskell noted that three amendments by bill sponsor Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, also were filed past the 6 p.m. deadline. But Perez allowed those amendments to be debated and adopted.
Given that Perez wasn’t allowing the Democrats’ amendments to be discussed, Diamond asked that the committee delay a vote on the bill, which is a priority for Republicans and would provide broad immunity to businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits. Members of the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee on a voice vote shot down Diamond’s request.
Diamond filed three of the five amendments that Perez shelved without discussion. One amendment would have prevented employers from taking retaliatory action against employees who test positive for COVID-19, are told to quarantine because of COVID-19 or are experiencing COVID-19 illnesses and made reasonable efforts to get tested.
Diamond’s two other amendments would have changed a requirement in the bill that plaintiffs must have signed affidavits from physicians attesting that the plaintiffs got COVID-19 from the defendants. This requirement has become one of the most controversial provisions in the bill.
Commitee member Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, said he wanted to support the bill but couldn’t if the affidavit requirement remained in the proposed legislation.
“I’ll happily vote for this bill if we can amend out the pre-suit process including the affidavit. These are good amendments that make this bill better,” he said.
Driskell sponsored the other two amendments that weren’t discussed. One would have changed workers’ compensation insurance laws to include a presumptive eligibility for health care providers, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, law enforcement officers or school employees who test positive for COVID-19. The other would have altered the definition of COVID-19 claim.
Driskell said after the meeting she regretted the amendments weren’t discussed because there will not be another opportunity for members of the public to debate the issues, as the bill is ready to go to the House floor.
“Because this was the last committee stop is why you saw the fireworks you did today. It was the last time for the public to hear our amendments directly and comment directly on those,” Driskell said. “There was a lot at stake at this committee meeting.”