State lawmakers spend day 60 bringing some big issues in for a landing

by | May 3, 2019

Friday marked the 60th and final day of the 2019 legislative session, although lawmakers will have to gather Saturday afternoon at the Capitol to officially vote on next year’s budget in order to comply with the “cooling off” period.

Although they can’t vote on the actual budget bill until 72 hours after the spending plan hits there desks, it didn’t stop lawmakers from starting debate on the proposed $91.1 billion budget that was agreed to on Wednesday.

Legislators also addressed a couple of high profile bills that have been proposed during this session — a criminal justice reform package and a bill implementing Amendment 4.

The amendment passed by voters in November, calls for the automatic restoration of voter rights for ex-felons.

The implementation bill, which the Senate approved Thursday, requires offenders to pay all restitution owed to victims as well as court costs in order to be eligible to vote. It lays out ways a convicted felon can meet that financial obligation, including a court order from a judge that converts a financial obligation into community service hours.

Critics argue that requiring former felons to meet their financial legal obligations places an unfair financial burden on a segment of the population that doesn’t have the financial means to meet those obligations.

“We haven’t created the right framework to get this right,” said Rep. Michael Greico, D-Miami Beach. “I think there are people who have earned the right to vote, but because of the structure of this bill are not going to be able to do that.”

Rep. Geri Thompson, D-Windermere, called the proposal “cash register justice.”

But Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, the House sponsor of the bill said that  passage of Amendment 4 set in motion changes to Florida law that pertain to restoration of voting rights for former felons. He said implementing the amendment will take time and work.

“There are some people who think that Amendment 4 was the end of something,” said Grant. “They thought that when this passed, our work was done.

“I maintained my commitment from day one on this initiative that we would take this for what it was and we would continue doing the great policy work that I am proud of .. this isn’t the end of the story about redemption and restoration and second chances. But we also need to remember that the rule of law matters.

The House passed the implementing legislation.

Earlier in the day, the House passed a criminal justice reform package that’s designed to end the cycle of prison for nonviolent offenders.

“Our goal when we started out in this process was to make sure we have the fairest, most just criminal justice system in the country,” said bill sponsor Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast.

The reform package passed by the House and sent to the governor didn’t go quite as far as the Senate had would have liked. On Thursday, the upper chamber removed parts of its plan in order to address concerns  of the House and Gov. DeSantis.

The provisions removed by the Senate would have allowed inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses to be released earlier from prison for good behavior. The Senate also agreed to drop language that would have given judges more discretion in sentencing drug offenders.  

Lawmakers also began their debate on the budget.

The budget includes a $242-per-pupil increase in school spending, which amount to roughly a 3 percent hike for Florida’s 2.8 million students.  It also sets aside $158.2 million for charter schools to maintain, repair and remodel their buildings.

The spending  plan exceeds Gov. Ron DeSantis’ call for environmental spending by $60 million. DeSantis had requested $628.6 million for Lake Okeechobee and other water projects.

The plan also includes $90 million for a tax relief package that includes sales “holidays” on back-to-school items and for hurricane season supplies.

An unexpected expense in this year’s budget is a $1.8 billion relief package to help the victims of Hurricane Michael in the Panhandle.

“The tremendous amount of funding the state has invested in hurricane recovery placed significant constraints on our budget that guided every facet of our decision making in all other areas,” said Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

“It’s not enough to help the the proud people of these communities who have lost everything,” said Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee. “It’s not enough to get them back into their homes, back to their jobs, back to a sense of normalcy.”

A legislative analysis determined the Senate provisions that were removed would have freed up more than 9,000 prison beds and saved taxpayers $860 million over the next five years.

Both chambers will return to the Capitol at 1:30 p.m. Saturday to officially vote on the spending plan.




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