October 26, 2021
Florida's top legislative issues in 2021

The Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, which represents 14 hospital systems that provide most of the hospital to the state's Medicaid population, is imploring lawmakers not to cut Medicaid reimbursement rates amid the pandemic and to replicate others states' programs to draw down untapped federal Medicaid funds.

2021 Legislative Preview

Florida's top legislative issues in 2021

Amy Keller | 3/1/2021

Environment/Water

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Senate President Wilton Simpson and Gov. Ron DeSantis have signaled that they will address the risk of flooding caused by sea-level rise. At the Florida Chamber Foundation’s Transportation, Growth & Infrastructure Solution Summit in December, Sprowls said that Florida shouldn’t just react to flooding events and needs to focus on flood mitigation measures, including grant funding that would allow localities to pay for projects; DeSantis’ budget proposal includes $1 billion to establish a four-year Resilient Florida grant program that would do just that. Simpson has said he’d like to see more money dedicated to septic-to-sewer conversions, and he suggested the state concentrate more on northern Everglades restoration instead of the reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee. DeSantis is pushing for $473 million for Everglades restoration and $260 million for other water-related projects, including springs restoration and combatting red tide.

Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) has proposed legislation to create a Statewide Office of Resiliency within the Executive Office of the Governor and create a Sea-Level Rise Task Force, but the $500,000 price tag could pose a stumbling block.

1000 Friends of Florida is pushing for at least a $100-million funding floor for the Florida Forever land conservation program and the extension of bonding authority to the program. DeSantis recommended $50 million for the program in his budget proposal. The group is also seeking legislation to breach the 50-year-old Rodman/Kirkpatrick Dam, which was part of the failed Cross Florida Barge Canal Project, to restore a free-flowing Ocklawaha River. If the legislation stalls, the group will seek an executive order to accomplish the goal. Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, says there could also be “as much of a financial as an environmental imperative” this year for lawmakers to pull the plug on M-CORES, a controversial, multi-billion project to build three toll roads through rural parts of the state.

Alcohol To Go

During last year’s COVID lockdowns, DeSantis issued an executive order allowing restaurants to sell carryout alcohol beverages, and two bills are pending in the Senate to make cocktails to go permanent. “It took COVID, but now I think everybody sees there is nothing dangerous about allowing a restaurant to seal it properly and package it and put it out the door,” says Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Pre-Emption Battles

A 10-year battle over short-term vacation rentals will be back this year. The Florida League of Cities is pushing for a return to local control of vacation rentals and supports a partnership between the Department of Business & Professional Regulation and local governments to regulate the properties. The group is also keeping an eye on legislation related to home-based businesses — an item on Sprowls’ agenda — and wants to keep jurisdiction of such ordinances at the local level. “Imagine a sound system installation company working all hours of the day or a boat manufacturing shop using hazardous chemicals and having dangerous odors/fumes being smelled blocks away opening next door to your home,” says James Miller, associate director of communication for the Florida League of Cities. Another flashpoint in the debate over local control concerns cruise ships. Last year, voters in Monroe County passed measures that would limit cruise ship tourism in Key West. Sen. Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) has authored a bill that would reverse the prohibitions.

Health Care

The Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, which represents 14 hospital systems that provide most of the hospital care to the state’s Medicaid population, is imploring lawmakers not to cut Medicaid reimbursement rates amid the pandemic and to replicate other states’ programs to “draw down” untapped federal Medicaid funds. “Critical care safety net hospitals are treating an estimated 60% of the COVID-19 hospitalized patients and participating in half of the COVID-19 clinical trials, yet these critical care hospitals comprise only 10% of the state’s hospitals,” says Justin Senior, CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida and former Florida Medicaid director.

Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, told lawmakers in January that hospitals are “challenged right now with workforce issues” that could worsen if COVID cases remain high or increase. “The answer isn’t there as it was in July, with the ability to bring nurses in from other states,” she said, adding that the health-care sector might want to look at partnering with the military to meet staffing demands.

The Florida Health Care Association, which represents nearly 700 nursing homes and assisted living facilities, is just as concerned about staffing and wants to make permanent a temporary program that allows “personal care attendants” to assist certified nursing assistants with some of their daily resident care activities. The group is also pushing for COVID liability protections for long-term care facilities and is asking the Legislature to keep the Medicaid funding increase it received last budget year.

Tax Breaks

Under the mantle of the Restore Economic Strength through Employment & Tourism Task Force, a broad coalition of business groups has suggested lawmakers consider a range of tax breaks, including a brief sales tax holiday on food and drinks sold by restaurants as well as reductions in the corporate income tax, the communications services tax and taxes levied on commercial property leases.

The Florida Retail Federation wants lawmakers to authorize tax holidays as it has done previously for back-to-school shoppers and hurricane preparations. DeSantis’ recommended budget includes an eight-day back-to-school sales tax holiday as well as a 10-day disaster preparedness holiday.

Rep. Ana Maria Rodriquez (R-Miami) is sponsoring a bill that would allow local governments to give property tax exemptions for properties being used to provide affordable housing to families with low, very low or moderate income levels.

Big Tech Battles

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is calling for legislation that would give consumers the ability to “opt-out of having their personal data being harvested and sold by big tech companies.” He says he wants companies to be required to disclose what information they collect, how they safeguard it and who they sell it to — and that consumers should be able to sue big tech companies (those with revenue exceeding $25 million) that don’t comply with such requirements.

Citing Twitter’s decision to ban former President Trump and Amazon’s move to kick the conservative social media app Parler off its cloud-hosting platform, DeSantis recently called on lawmakers to find ways to prevent social media platforms from censoring speech. “If we can be shut up, if we can be de-platformed … that is to me implicating core First Amendment freedoms and values — and I want a society in which we have a robust flow of information, and so we’re going to take action,” DeSantis said during a keynote address at a gathering sponsored by a conservative Texas think tank. Rep. Danny Burgess has a filed a bill that would require social media sites to provide notice within 30 days to users who’ve had their accounts suspended or disabled and explain why they were punished. Rep. Randy Fine, meanwhile, has suggested the state dump any investments it has in Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google.

Ballot Initiatives

Efforts are underway again to make it harder for Floridians to amend the state Constitution. Rep. Rick Roth (R-West Palm Beach) has filed a joint resolution that would increase the percentage of votes required to approve an amendment from three-fifths (60%) to two-thirds (66.7%), though an amendment could be repealed or revised with the same percentage of votes with which it was originally passed. An interesting aside: The record voter turnout in Florida in the 2020 elections will also make it harder to get a constitutional amendment going. To get an amendment on the ballot, Florida requires signatures equal to 8% of the preceding presidential election. Before the 2020 elections, that threshold was 766,000 signatures. Going forward, it will take 885,000 signatures.

Unemployment Reform

Democrats want to overhaul the state’s unemployment compensation system, which according to an Associated Press analysis of Labor Department data ranked second-to-last (only Hawaii was worse) in paying benefits on time. Legislation by Reps. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) and Sen. Bobby Powell Jr. (D-West Palm Beach) would give the Department of Economic Opportunity a three-week deadline to determine if someone is eligible for benefits. It would also boost weekly benefits from the current $275 to $500, double the maximum eligibility period from 13 weeks to 26 weeks, open eligibility to self-employed workers and create ways to apply for assistance — but the proposal faces a tough road in the GOP-controlled body.

Vaccines

Under an emergency order issued in October, pharmacists and pharmacy interns are allowed to administer FDA-approved vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, to consumers. The Florida Retail Federation would like lawmakers to make the change permanent.

The House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee, has advanced a bill sponsored by Rep. Aridan Zika (R-Land O’Lakes) that would crack down on fraud schemes related to COVID-19 vaccines, making such scams a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Anti-Riot Bills

After a summer marked by protests in a number of U.S. cities over the killing of George Floyd, DeSantis proposed a Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act to impose stricter punishment for protesters who engage in violence. Republican lawmakers filed the 51-page bill Jan. 6, hours after an angry mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. The anti-riot legislation — which has the backing of Simpson and Sprowls — would increase penalties for people who destroy property, injure police officers or block roadways during a protest, and it creates new offenses: A “mob intimidation” provision, for instance, would make it a first-degree misdemeanor when three or more people act with “common intent, to compel or induce” through force or the threat of force another person to “assume or abandon a particular viewpoint.” The proposal would also require cities that want to reduce funding for police departments to get approval from the state. The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers says the legislation is “too broad an attack on the First Amendment and the right to assemble” and, along with Florida Democrats, plans to fight the bill.

 

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