by Amy Keller
Updated 7 months ago
Legislative sessions can be unpredictable, with unexpected events emerging to dominate the discussion. In 2018, the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School pushed other issues to the back burner as lawmakers focused on a $400-million gun and school safety package. Last year, pet projects in members’ districts took a back seat to funding Panhandle recovery from Hurricane Michael.
Barring any surprises, budget fights will likely dominate the 2020 session when lawmakers return to Tallahassee on Jan. 14. A projected $867-million drop in tax revenue over the next two years could trigger belt-tightening and make it difficult to accommodate spending on big-ticket items, such as Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal to raise pay for starting teachers.
Amy Baker, who leads the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, told lawmakers she isn’t expecting a recession but warned that “our forecast for Florida indicates we’re going to see a slowing down, most of it centered in 2020.”
Teacher pay aside, other items topping the governor’s agenda include continued investment in water quality and the environment, occupational licensing reform and a push for all employers to use an E-Verify system to crack down on undocumented workers. Other issues will also return — among them, a move to collect sales tax on internet sales and efforts to defund Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida. Meanwhile, De- Santis is asking that all $387 million in the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust be used only for affordable housing. Lawmakers have diverted affordable housing funds to pay for other priorities in recent years, such as recovery from Hurricane Michael.
After successfully championing legislation last year to build three major toll roads in the state, Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) is turning his attention to other infrastructure projects, including water and sewer upgrades and fixed-access broadband. “There’s no reason we should have areas in this state where they’re not able to access broadband,” he says.
Galvano has also focused on better understanding the factors related to mass violence to prevent future tragedies. “I think the ideas that are out there include equipping the law enforcement agencies with proactive tools, intel tools, better communication,” he says. “A lot of the perpetrators in these horrific crimes, when you look back at that, it’s like ‘how did we miss that?’ ”
Here’s a look at how those and other hot-button issues — including gambling, criminal justice reform and tort reform — might play out over the next 60 days.
House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Miami Lakes) managed to steer through several major health care reforms in 2019, including a repeal of the certificate of need regulatory process for hospitals, a regulatory framework for tele-health services and a plan to allow prescription drugs to be imported from Canada. Back on the agenda this year is a move to expand the scope of practice of nurse practitioners and other health care providers — which the Florida Medical Association fought successfully last year. Sen. Travis Hutson (R-St. Augustine) and Rep. Tyler Sirois (R-Merritt Island) authored a bill that would allow licensed pharmacists to test and treat patients for influenza and streptococcus at their local pharmacies — a move they say would streamline care and cut costs for uninsured patients. A group called Floridians for Dental Access, meanwhile, is renewing its push for the licensing of dental therapists — mid-level providers similar to physician assistants — who could work under the supervision of a dentist to provide routine dental care. The Florida Dental Association opposes the concept, which is in practice in 12 other states. Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) and Rep. Nicholas Duran (D-Miami) are pushing a bill backed by the American Diabetes Association that would require insurers to cap co-pays for insulin prescriptions at $100 a month.
Legislation that DeSantis backs would allow college athletes to earn money from endorsements. California recently passed a similar law, and legislatures in New York and Michigan are also considering it. Amid the wave of change, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s board of directors voted in October to allow students to profit from endorsements. DeSantis, a baseball captain while at Yale, predicts bipartisan support for the legislation, which would go into effect on July 1 if it passes.
The insurance industry is pushing to change assignment of benefits provisions, or AOBs, in auto policies. AOBs allow policyholders to sign their policies over to third parties, who arrange for repairs and deal with the insurance company. The insurance industry and its proponents claim that some auto glass repair companies are using coercive methods to get consumers to sign AOB forms and that a flood of AOB-related lawsuits is driving up auto insurance rates. The number of AOB-related lawsuits has risen from 400 in 2006 to 35,000 last year, according to Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and he says the “lion’s share of that exploitation is the windshield glass fraud that takes place.” Independent auto glass repair companies argue that the Safelite company practically has a monopoly over auto glass repairs and that shrinking payments from insurers have left many smaller, local shops with no other recourse than filing lawsuits to get paid. Insurers were successful last year in getting the Legislature to revamp the AOB practice for residential and commercial property insurance policies. Insurers can now sell discounted policies that don’t allow for AOBs. The new law also limits attorney fees in AOB-related lawsuits filed by contractors.
Business lobbies are renewing their push for changes in tort law. Their wish list includes accurate calculations of medical damages in injury cases; changes to “bad faith” laws, which require insurers to settle claims in a timely manner but which insurers say incentivize trial attorneys to bring frivolous lawsuits against them; and disclosure of third-party litigation financing. David Hart, executive vice president of governmental and political relations for the Florida Chamber, worries that investor-financed lawsuits are increasing the number of “frivolous lawsuits.” Says Hart: “It raises the very real questions that if you’ve got an investor involved in a lawsuit, is the attorney involved in the case beholden to their client, or is that lawyer more beholden to the third-party investor?”
Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a pay raise for new teachers a centerpiece of his 2020 agenda. But the Florida Education Association, the labor union that represents public school teachers, wants broader pay reforms and worries the DeSantis proposal ignores veteran teachers. Legislative leaders, meanwhile, are cautious about the $600-million price tag. DeSantis has also proposed replacing the controversial Best and Brightest bonus scheme with a $300-million program that would reward teachers and principals based on their school’s growth in the A-F grading system.
DeSantis is making good on his promise to focus on cleaning up Florida’s waterways. Last year, he persuaded the Legislature to deliver a record $682 million for Everglades restoration and related projects. This year, he’s pushing for $625 million for the next three years. He also favors a 50% increase in fines for sewage spills and environmental crimes. “If you’re dumping this stuff in the bay and the fine is cheaper than having to actually do the right thing, then it’s basically the cost of doing business,” he told reporters at an October news conference. He’s also proposed legislation to try to tackle the toxic algae blooms that have plagued Florida’s beaches and lakes. Drawing from the recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, his proposal calls for inspecting and maintaining wastewater systems; regulating bio-solid applications and restricting them to high and dry land that’s less likely to put waste into sources of groundwater; and transferring the oversight of septic tanks from the Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection, among other changes. Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, says he’s encouraged by the governor’s continued action on water issues but says whatever bill emerges needs to be comprehensive and “have real teeth.” The growth management group is also advocating for a repeal of a law passed last year that would require citizens who challenge a land development plan and lose to pay the winner’s legal fees and a return to full funding of $300 million annually for Florida Forever, the state’s land acquisition program. Lawmakers allotted $33 million to the program during the last legislative session.
Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) is making another push for criminal justice reform with bills that run a gamut from allowing the early release of terminally ill, geriatric prisoners to raising the threshold for sending nonviolent felony offenders to prison. Another proposal (SB 468) by Brandes would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders in certain drug trafficking cases where the offender hadn’t engaged in a “continuing criminal enterprise.” The changes in SB 468 alone would free up a “significant” number of prison beds and cut incarceration costs by at least $8.6 million over the next five years, according to an estimate from the 2019 Criminal Justice Impact Conference.
It’s been a bumpy couple of years for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency. Last year, the Legislature slashed its annual funding from $76 million to $50 million, and the organization laid off about a third of its staff. The public-private agency will shut down in July unless lawmakers authorize funding. Speaking before the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee last October, Visit Florida CEO and President Dana Young acknowledged that tourism is strong but cautioned that a 2% decline in tourism-related tax revenue would cost the state more than $64 million. “Our job is to make sure that the Florida tourism industry, which supports such a huge portion of our budget, remains strong and can continue to support Florida jobs and the tax revenue that it brings in,” she said. Sen. Ed Hooper (R-Clearwater) filed a bill (SB 362) to keep the agency’s lights on through Oct. 1, 2028. It sailed through a Senate committee last fall, and Rep. Mel Ponder (R-Destin) has filed companion legislation (HB 213), but the proposal faces a tough sell in the House. DeSantis has requested $50 million for the agency.
Sen. Bill Galvano wants to see a comprehensive gambling bill pass before he’s term-limited out of office but says that it’s become “more difficult” to reach an agreement for a number of reasons, ranging from legal skirmishes to a constitutional amendment that requires voter approval of gambling expansions. Last session, GOP leaders came close to striking a deal in which the Seminole Indians would have paid the state about $500 million in exchange for exclusive rights to certain card games — but time ran out on the negotiations. Not long after, the tribe stopped making revenue-sharing payments to the state, arguing that the state had not held up its end of the bargain of shutting down “illegal banked card games” offered by pari-mutuels. Without payments from the tribe and “no obligation” to provide them exclusivity, Galvano says he’s interested in exploring modifications in the private gaming world. That could include authorizing pari-mutuels to operate designated player games, expand their operating hours, relocate their permits and offer sports betting.
Online Sales Tax
Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) says his top priority is passing his “e-fairness” online sales tax bill. The legislation, backed by the Florida Retail Federation, would require online retailers with no brick-and-mortar stores in the state to collect and remit a 6% sales tax on purchases by Florida customers. Most consumers ignore existing law that requires them to keep track of their online purchases and send the taxes they owe to the Department of Revenue. Local retailers, meanwhile, and many online sellers such as Amazon with a physical presence in Florida already collect the sales tax. “To me, it’s all about fairness and leveling the playing field,” says Gruters, who rejects any claim that the proposal amounts to a tax increase. “Since it’s already owed, it’s not a new tax,” he says. He also thinks his colleagues could make good use of the $750 million in revenue the bill would generate.
Calling it the “best way to deter illegal immigration,” DeSantis is pushing a bill filed by Sens. Tom Lee (R-Thonotosassa) and Gruters that would require all private employers in the state to run new hires through a web-based E-Verify system to verify their eligibility to work in the United States. Under the proposal, companies that don’t comply could be subject to fines or even lose their business licenses. The agriculture, tourism and construction industries and the state’s business lobbies are opposed. “We currently support the voluntary system. If it works for your business model, then go ahead, knock yourself out,” says Brewster Bevis, senior vice president of state and federal affairs for Associated Industries of Florida. “It’s not like we don’t have a system in place already.”
Lawmakers are expected to debate a host of other controversial issues, including abortion, gun control and alimony reform. Attorney General Ashley Moody has asked lawmakers to crack down on the epidemic of teen vaping and consider banning flavored vaping products. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the highest-ranking Democrat in the state, is pushing for energy and climate legislation, including a greenhouse gas inventory for state buildings; $5 million in funding for energy and water audits on Florida farms; funding for a climate adaptation research grant program; and $20 million for a clean energy research center at one of the state’s universities. Battles between state and local governments are also heating up. As Key West prepares to ban the sale of certain types of chemical sunscreens in 2021 that it believes are contributing to coral bleaching, state lawmakers appear poised to stop them. Rep. Bob Rommel (R-Naples), meanwhile, has reintroduced legislation that would prevent local governments from regulating minimum wage and other conditions of employment. Sen. Jeff Brandes’ efforts to abolish the Florida Constitution Revision Commission are gaining traction in the Senate. His proposal would put a question on the 2020 ballot asking voters whether the appointed body, which meets every 20 years to suggest changes to the state constitution, should be dissolved.
Read more in Florida Trend's January 2020 issue.
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