In less than a week, lawmakers will convene at the State Capitol to take and debate a host of issues over the course of a 60-day session. Several hot-button bills are on the table, as well as some lesser-known proposals that could gain traction and opposition as the legislative cycle plows forward.
DeSantis’s Three-Headed Monster
Governor Ron DeSantis‘s Cerberus is certain to turn heads this Legislative Session. Like the mythological hound, DeSantis’s three-tiered agenda seeks to shield Floridians and shut the gates on violent mobs, Silicon Valley, and pandemic lawyers. Below is a rundown of those bills.
‘Combatting Public Disorder’ (HB 1) would deter criminal rioting and crackdown on violent mobs that loot and destroy businesses. The measure, spearheaded by State Representative Juan Fernandez-Barquin, would impose enhanced penalties for assaulting police officers and enticing a riot. The bill is in response to the lawlessness that permeated in major cities across the country last summer.
‘Consumer Data Privacy’ (HB 969) is just the latest component in the GOP’s fight against Big Tech companies. The proposed measure will allow consumers in Florida to have the final say in how social media companies like Twitter and Facebook use their personal information. State Representative Fiona McFarland is sponsoring the bill.
‘Civil Liability for Damages Relating to COVID-19’ (HB 7) is another top priority for the Governor. The House bill, backed by State Representative Lawrence McClure, would provide liability protections to businesses from claims brought by plaintiff’s arising from contracting COVID-19. A companion bill (SB 74), pushed by State Senator Jeff Brandes, would extend the protection umbrella to safeguard healthcare providers. Both pieces of legislation have received overwhelming support from Floridians and Florida politicos.
Florida’s On a Budget
The path to Florida’s fiscal budget always takes a series of turns and detours before reaching its final destination. While a roadmap of government spending can be a headache, the economic fallout brought forth by an ongoing pandemic makes 2021’s process a bit more challenging.
While lawmakers have stressed that potential budget cuts are on the horizon, DeSantis has offered up a 2021-2022 budget of $96.6 billion — a $4.3 billion increase over the current fiscal year. The Governor says his increase accounts for “various expenditures related to the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response and its impacts on Floridians.” DeSantis’s proposed budget also recommends over $1 billion in savings – including over $400 million in administrative and operational efficiencies.
Still, GOP leaders will have to walk a tightrope when tackling the budget — being pragmatic while also playing politics.
Gaming Lobby Bets on Brandes
Brandes is doubling down on legalizing sports betting in Florida, again filing legislation to give the third most populous state a piece of the action.
His ‘Sports Wagering’ bill (SB 392) would allow Floridians over the age of 21 to wager money or items on a sports event, with bets being placed with the state’s Department of Lottery or a licensee. The new law would put the Department of Lottery in charge of regulating sports betting and allow them to administer annual licenses for those seeking to operate a sports pool. Brandes also filed related measures (SB 394/396) that would set the application fee and renewal fee for the license at $100,000 and impose a sport betting revenue tax of 15 percent.
The Pinellas Republican filed a similar bill during the 2020 Legislative Session, but his proposal was never heard in committee.
A contentious issue, given the Seminole Tribe Compact granting exclusivity for certain types of gambling (slots, roulette, blackjack, etc.) in the Sunshine State, Brandes faces an uphill battle. Not only is the bill up against the Tribe, which controls Florida’s biggest casinos, Brandes’ measure is also subject to Amendment 3 — which could put the matter of casino gaming expansion in voters’ hands.
Whether or not the legislature will have the appetite to open the floodgates to Florida bettors is still to be determined, but there’s no denying the impacts this legislation could have on the state’s economy. Apart from giving people the ability to bet on collegiate and professional sports, a gaming expansion could generate millions of dollars that could be used to bolster education and offset shortfalls brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With new leadership at the helm and a lingering virus, it’s now or never for Brandes’ gambling proposals.
While insiders continue to speculate if Democratic State Senator Jason Pizzo will run for governor, the former Miami-Dade prosecutor has kept his nose to the grindstone, carving out a role for himself as a reformer. His three big issues this session – fixes to the state’s unemployment system, evictions processes, and criminal justice laws – have made him a progressive beacon in a coronavirus cloud of darkness.
Pizzo has embraced this leadership role openly, standing on the frontlines of the COVID-19 fight while serving as a voice of reason. Entering the final stretch of his first term in the Senate, Pizzo has carried the accountability mantle for the Democratic Party, being bold in his approach with fellow colleagues and swift with his desire to aid Floridians impacted by the mass contagion.
Most notably, he’s positioned himself as the figurehead in the fight surrounding the state’s unemployment system. With the website failing to keep up with an influx of applicants in 2020, many out-of-work Floridians were left in the dark with no manual on how to navigate the trials brought on by the coronavirus, Pizzo slowly became the de facto leader in this battle, and has since turned his attention to championing reforms to help those affected by the virus.
While many in his party feel emboldened by the press and quietly call it day, Pizzo actually has the legislation to boot. On Tuesday, Pizzo filed an ‘Evictions During a Declared State of Emergency’ bill (SB 1548) aimed at protecting individuals from being kicked out of their residency during a state of emergency. Pizzo’s bill would no longer require the Governor to issue an executive order to halt evictions during an economic shutdown like the pandemic.
Though Pizzo is still at the mercy of a Republican-led Senate, GOP leadership respects the Miami Democrat, with Senate President Wilton Simpson reaching across the aisle to tap Pizzo to lead the Criminal Justice Committee.
Some say he has a cape stashed away in his office, although these claims have not been confirmed.
Republican State Senator Dennis Baxley is pushing a bill that will put in place tighter vote by mail restrictions. The move comes in the wake of significant Republican concerns over lax enforcement of similar vote by mail laws that Republicans say were exploited in other states.
The bill (SB 90) would change absentee voting rules, reducing the period that vote-by-mail requests would stay valid. Current law allows mail ballot requests to stay valid through two election cycles. Baxley’s bill would shorten that, requiring Floridians to request mail ballots ahead of every election cycle.
Democrats oppose the measure, saying the reform is not needed. As evidence, they point to Florida’s relatively smooth election night performance last November.
School Choice Expansion
Continuing their push to expand Florida’s school-choice landscape, Republicans will look to fast track a measure that would expand the state’s eligibility for voucher programs and give parents the flexibility to use taxpayer-backed “education savings accounts” for private schools and other costs.
Backed by Republican State Senator Manny Diaz, the ‘Education Scholarship Programs’ bill (SB 48) would merge existing voucher programs into two primary scholarships. One scholarships would serve students with special needs while the other would serve a broader population of students. Diaz’s bill would also grant parents the freedom to spend educational savings accounts on private tuition, electronic devices, as well as tutors.