When the handkerchiefs dropped on the 2019 legislative session Saturday afternoon, legislative leaders were beaming with pride over the accomplishments they achieved over the past 60 days.
“I can’t remember (during) my time in the Legislature where we have had a more productive, bold, bold session,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, after lawmakers passed a $91.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year.
Galvano’s counterpart in the House echoed the president’s sentiments.
“This is the most productive session in recent times and we have had a number of tremendous sessions over the past few years,” Rep. José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.
Those accomplishments included money for water quality and Everglades restoration, for recovery and relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, a $121 million tax relief package that includes sales tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and hurricane preparedness, and creation of a new scholarship program, the Family Empowerment Scholarship, designed to serve our low income families and reduce the Florida Tax Scholarship waitlist.
Lawmakers also passed a prescription drug bill that asks the federal government to permit the importation of cheaper medications from Canada and elsewhere, as well as the so-called sanctuary city ban that requires local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration officials in detaining undocumented immigrants..
The sanctuary city ban, a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis, had failed to pass out of the Republican-controlled Legislature in recent years.
What made the difference this year?
“Well, we have a new governor. A new culture on the plaza level,” explained Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, a veteran of legislative sessions and former Senate president from 2004 to 2006.
“He (Gov. DeSantis) has deference to the Legislature,” Lee added, crediting DeSantis’ time in Congress with helping the first year governor understand the legislative process. “I think they have released senior staff in the regulatory agencies .. communicate with our legislative staff, which has given us more information than what we need to write public policy.”
Lee says there’s another factor that made a big difference in this year’s session.
“I think we have a new (Florida) Supreme Court and I don’t think we would ever tried what we did this year under the old Supreme Court because we know it would have gone right into the ditch,” Lee said.
One of those bills is the Family Empowerment Scholarship program that provides scholarships for an estimated 18,000 students in its first year and thousands more in subsequent years.
Twenty years ago, Florida became the first state in the nation with a statewide voucher program. The program was struck down in 2006 by a more liberal-leaning court. This year’s voucher bill will likely be challenged in the courts again, but this time lawmakers knew they would face a more friendly court comprised of three new conservative judges appointed by DeSantis shortly after taking office.
A reality that Democrats acknowledged as the session closed.
“Even as the voices of the people were trampled, so too was our constitution, as voucher legislation siphoning public money from traditional public schools to give to private, religious ones, cleared both chambers and appears destined for the newly remade Supreme Court,” said Senate Democratic leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.
DeSantis said what makes the 2019 legislative session a success was that both sides were able to walk away victories.
“I think if you look at this, there’s great wins for conservatives,” DeSantis observed. “But there’s also, with the environment stuff, that appeals to a lot of Democrats. We did a big increase in affordable housing, which is important to a lot of liberals. So, there’s really something in here, I think, for everybody, one way or another. So that’s a good thing. I think the more we can do that, the better off we are.”
DeSantis said despite all the positives that came from this session, there are bills that will be the target of his veto pen. He hinted that a series of vetoes could come in the next week.