Lawmakers head into the home stretch of the 2022 Legislative Session ahead of Friday’s Sine Die with a number of legislative measures still awaiting their fates. Gov. Ron DeSantis is set to score yet another state-level political victory, imminently signing two controversial bills that have been lauded by his supporters: a 15-week abortion ban and the Parental Rights in Education. While GOP members in Tallahassee may celebrate major pieces of legislation passing in their favor, a plethora of pressing matters remain, including the state budget and DeSantis’ proposed gas tax holiday.
HB 687/SB 1184 – Free Speech of Health Care Practitioners:
DeSantis has publically pushed the ‘Free Speech of Health Care Practitioners’ bill as of late, holding a press conference to promote the bill as well as a medical roundtable event in which accredited doctors and health care professionals spoke in favor of the motion.
The bill, currently stuck in committee hearings and at risk of dying in the legislature, would prohibit medical institutions or regulatory bodies from prohibiting or reprimanding medical doctors through the revocation of a license or credential for “exercising his or her constitutional right of free speech, including speech through the use of a social media platform.”
The measure was composed following a series of threats from medical societies and associations to bar doctors who they deemed to have promoted misinformation regarding COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, including several against the newly-confirmed state Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo.
“One of the earliest things that I did in the pandemic was run a study to see how widespread the disease was in April of 2020 in various cities in California,” said Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, who spoke at the roundtable event. “We found that the disease was already quite widespread and that it was already too late for the lockdown strategies. The harms of the lockdown were catastrophically devastating to the poor and working class. We viewed the lockdowns as themselves as harmful. Many scientists have been silenced, and the freedom for scientists to discuss with one another about what the evidence says … needs to be restored so scientists can advise and not dictate policy.”
Florida Doctors in the Committee to Protect Health Care released a statement last week stating that the legislation allows health care professions to spread disinformation, unproven treatments, and other medically inaccurate information.
Though DeSantis has personally championed this bill, it has yet to reach the floor of either chamber and is put at further risk of being left behind as Friday approaches.
Florida’s House and Senate both passed their iterations of the state budget in late February, amounting to $105.3 and $108.6 billion in spending, respectively. While both versions take priority in allocations to environmental initiatives and infrastructure, a dividing line presents itself in education, affordable housing, and pay raises.
Bolstered by federal stimulus money and growing sales tax revenues, major differences include the House asking to shift $200 million away from school districts that required students to wear masks last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, while the Senate has rolled out a controversial environmental package that touches on Everglades funding.
House and Senate leaders have decided to spend an overall total of $42.44 billion in general revenue, with $14.4 billion for health care, $13.5 billion for PreK-12 education, $5.94 billion for criminal and civil justice, which includes prisons, and $5 billion for higher education.
Aspects of both approved budgets put resources toward raising the pay of some of Florida’s most important sectors, including law enforcement, correctional officers, state firefighters, and juvenile justice officers.
The House seeks a 5.38% increase for the state workforce, citing a need for a bump amid rising inflation. Members of the Senate, though, target a minimum-wage increase to assure that all state workers earn at least $15 per hour. The measure has been backed by Senate President Wilton Simpson.
“We are also investing $1 billion to ensure the Floridians who either work for the state or contract with the state, and spend each day educating, protecting, and caring for others in our communities earn at least $15 per hour,” said Simpson. “I am thrilled to see the Senate lead the charge to implement a $15 per hour wage for those who serve the public, from our cafeteria workers to those who care for our elderly, well in advance of the constitutional deadline.”
Lawmakers have until Tuesday night to pass a uniform budget in order to avoid prolonging the Legislative Session beyond Friday.
Gas Tax Holiday:
DeSantis in November called on lawmakers to pass a proposed gas tax relief to place a moratorium on the state’s 26.5 percent gas tax in order to ease the burden of fuel costs on Floridian consumers. The request, however, has fallen on deaf ears in the Capitol, as no real movement has taken place.
Another measure that DeSantis has personally championed, the governor has convinced gas station owners statewide to hop on board with the plan.
“This is really a big deal. The Governor called me several weeks ago and had this concept of a gas tax relief, and I thought it was a great idea,” said Arch “Beaver” Aplin, owner of gas station chain Buc-ee’s. “Inflation is real. It’s here and there’s no question about it. Buc-ee’s will absolutely commit if this happens, if it passes, and we will roll back prices the 25 cents.”
Despite the effort, politicians in both chambers seem ambivalent to the $1 billion costs the moratorium would enact.
HB 7061/SB 524 – Election Integrity Measures:
DeSantis has long sought to establish an “elections integrity squad” in order to crack down on fraudulent ballot casting and suspicious voter registration. The companion bills may make his dream a reality as the Senate bill easily passed a floor vote by a margin of 24-14.
SB 524 creates an Office of Election Crimes and Security comprising of 15 volunteer civilian workers to look into reports of voting fraud including anonymous allegations made through a hotline.
As recently as January, 4 arrests were made in The Villages on charges of voter fraud, including an individual that voted multiple times in the most recent Presidential election.
In the House, HB 7061 successfully cleared its stops through committee hearings and awaits a floor vote. The bill is anticipated to pass and land on DeSantis’ desk.
Florida State Guard:
DeSantis announced in December his intention to allocate millions in the state budget to reinstate the inactive Florida State Guard (FSG).
$3.5 million will go towards the training of state guard members to quickly respond to situations around the state. The 200 individuals that the FSG would be composed of will report directly to DeSantis rather than the federal government.
“We want to make sure we have the flexibility and the ability needed to respond to events in our state in the most effective way possible,” said DeSantis. “So, I’m going to be recommending in the budget $3.5 million to re-establish the Florida State Guard.”
The FSG will act as a civilian volunteer force that will be able to quickly mobilize and if necessary, assist the National Guard in Florida-oriented endeavors, and provide aid following natural disaster events.
The measure gained little traction before the Senate tacked the funding onto their state budget plan. If the House and Senate can agree to a budget that includes FSG funding, the squad of civilians will be formed.
SB 1808/ HB 1355 – Immigration Enforcement:
The pair of bills would require law enforcement agencies to work in conjunction with U.S. Immigration and Border Patrol while also preventing local city governments and political groups from contracting with groups that house, assist, or transport illegal immigrants.
The proposal comes directly from Gov. Ron DeSantis after he showed documented proof of the federal government flying illegal immigrants to Jacksonville International Airport via overnight flights.
DeSantis alleged that the Biden administration coordinated over 70 flights that brought immigrants that entered the country through Florida. The state found that portions of the individuals flown in intended to stay within state borders. One of which was a Honduran national that was brought to Florida through one of the midnight flights who was alleged to have murdered Francisco Javier Cuellar, father of four, in October. “If Biden had not been doing that, if he’d been doing his job, that individual would be alive today,” said DeSantis.
“The Biden administration has not only consciously refused to enforce immigration laws, but it has also developed an operation to secretly resettle illegal aliens into communities across Florida and the rest of the United States,” said DeSantis. “They’re doing this in the dark of night without any coordination with states, without any background checks, and without any efforts to initiate the legal process for their removal. I am glad Attorney General Moody is continuing our fight to hold the Biden Administration accountable for its reckless disregard for immigration laws.”
The Senate passed SB 1808 last week, while the House awaits a scheduled floor debate.