It’s the calm before the storm at the Florida Capitol.
State lawmakers had a light day Thursday with a handful of meetings as many headed home to enjoy this weekend’s holy holidays with their families. When they return to Tallahassee next week, they will begin tackling a full slate of bills as they head into the final two weeks of the 2019 legislative session which is scheduled to end May 3.
At the top of the list for legislators when they return to the Capitol is reaching agreement on a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. It’s the one bill the Legislature is required to approve during its 60-day session. Budget negotiators will work on the differences between the spending plans passed by both chambers which are separated by about $400 million.
The House budget proposal totals $88.9 billion. The Senate plan stands at $90.3 billion. Both exceed the current $88.7 billion budget, but lower than the $91.3 billion spending plan proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis when he took office earlier this year
There are some significant differences in the two areas that dominate state spending — education and health care.
One of the fiscal issues that negotiators will also address is the expansion and construction of thee major toll roads. It’s a priorty of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. The three multiuse infrastructure corridors would be developed over the next decade and would connect communities along Florida’s west coast.
Galvano’s plan would extend the Suncoast Parkway north of Tampa all the way to the Georgia border. The Florida Turnpike would be extended west and intersect with the Suncoast Parkway. The third corridor would be constructed from Polk County to Collier County.
The plan, which is budgeted for $45 million next year to study the toll roads, was put on hold earlier this week when questions were raised about the environmental impacts if the corridor’s are constructed. But, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, is confident the projects will be part of budget talks that will begin next week.
Another budget issue that will need to be resolved is the future of Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency. The House has been critical of the work of the agency in recent years, but has always agreed to maintain funding at $76 million. This year, the House budget sets aside $19 million, enough to keep Visit Florida in operation until October 1.
The Senate plan would allocate $50 million and would keep the agency’s doors open beyond October.
Lawmakers will also continue working on a relief package to help the victims of Hurricane Michael which tore through the Florida Panhandle last October leaving behind billions of dollars in damage.
Other key legislation that will have to be resolved in the final two weeks includes a revision to the school safety law enacted after last year’s school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which 17 people were killed. Lawmakers allowed local school districts to permit certain school staff who are properly vetted and trained to carry concealed weapons on school campuses to deter future shootings. Lawmakers are looking at expanding the guardian program this year to include teachers.
Sanctuary cities is another issue remaining to be addressed. The bill, which has died in the Senate in recent years, would ban sanctuary cities in Florida for illegal immigrants. It would also require local law enforcement to work with federal immigration officials to detain immigrants who are suspected of being in this country illegally.
Critics claim the bill would threaten the separation of families. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, insists the proposed law would only affect illegal immigrants who were arrested or convicted of a crime.
The bills made it through their last committee stop this week and are ready for debate on the floor of each chamber.
Also awaiting action in the final two weeks of the session are bills that would impose term limits on school board members, require minors to get parental consent before having an abortion, and a proposal that would make it tougher to place citizen initiatives on the ballot.
With two weeks remaining in this year’s session, the final sprint has begun to pass legislation. But as so often happens, many bills will die in the final days