by Amy Keller
Updated 2 yearss ago
Heading into last year’s legislative session, Florida lawmakers were bracing for deep budget cuts amid a pandemic-induced economic downturn, but the $3-billion shortfall they anticipated didn’t materialize. In the end, they approved a record $101.5-billion spending plan (about 10% higher than the previous year) bolstered by billions of federal stimulus dollars and better-than-expected revenue collections.
This year, legislators return to Tallahassee with the state on solid financial footing. General revenue collections are estimated to surpass pre-pandemic forecasts by $1.2 billion for fiscal year 2022-23. “The outlook shows the budget’s in really good shape based on current estimates,” Rep. Jay Trumbull, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told colleagues at an October hearing.
Trumbull credited the improved revenue picture to Florida’s strategy of keeping the economy open during COVID-19 as well as “prudent budgeting” by lawmakers. New revenue sources — including a gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe and online sales tax collections — are also pumping more cash into Florida’s coffers. In fact, the two initiatives accounted for about half of the projected $1.2 billion increase in revenue, according to state economists, but with the gaming compact recently overturned by a federal judge, that revenue stream is now in legal limbo.
While passing a balanced budget each year is the Legislature’s chief job — and the only law that the Florida Constitution specifically requires lawmakers to pass each year — lawmakers have a host of other items on their to-do lists.
- Outgoing House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor), who will be term-limited out of office in November, likely will make another push for data privacy protections.
- Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby), who will run for agriculture commissioner in 2022, has continued to promote consolidating Florida’s deteriorating prisons.
- Gov. Ron DeSantis wants another round of election changes, pay raises for teachers and law enforcement officers, and $5,000 signing bonuses for new corrections officers.
- Hot button issues, such as abortion and gun rights, are also likely to emerge as flashpoints. Rep. Webster Barnaby (R-Orange City) has filed a Texas-style abortion bill that would ban abortions after a fetus has a detectable heartbeat, and Rep. Anthony Sabatini (R-Howey-in-the-Hills) has authored socalled “constitutional carry” legislation, which would allow Floridians to carry firearms without needing a license.
- Lawmakers will still have to grapple with COVID-related concerns, including strategies to aid hospitals and help nursing homes deal with a shortage of nurses and other health care workers. They’ll also consider a bill that would provide disability or death payments to first responders who contract the virus, and senators will decide whether to confirm Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a former UCLA professor of medicine, as Florida’s new surgeon general.
- Lawmakers will also tackle the once-adecade process of redrawing the state’s 40 Senate districts and 120 Florida House districts — and reconfiguring the state’s congressional maps from 27 seats to 28 following population growth reflected in the 2020 Census.
The session runs from Jan. 11 to March 11.
Issues to Watch
» Gov. DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran are asking for $15.5 million to eliminate the Florida Standards Assessments exams — the final step in ditching Common Core — and implement a “progress monitoring” system, which will consist of short individual check-in assessments three times a year (fall, winter and spring) that are unique to each student. If approved, the Florida Assessment of Student Thinking, or FAST plan, will be implemented in the 2022-23 school year to “set a baseline,” with grading beginning the following year. DeSantis also is asking for $600 million for teacher pay raises; $1,000 bonuses for Florida’s 177,000 teachers and principals; a boost in per-student funding to $8,000 (vs. the current $7,811); and $421 million for school safety and mental health initiatives. The governor also wants $500,000 to expand access to the Florida Civics and Debate Initiative; and $534 million for various workforce education programs.
» Travis Hutson (R-St. Augustine) is sponsoring a bill to expand bus routes, which now cover students who live two or more miles from a school; the proposal would include those who live one mile or more away. The change would create 193,110 additional riders and increase transportation costs by $184.5 million a year. Finding enough drivers could also pose a stumbling block, as 17.5% of school bus driver positions in the state are currently vacant. Lawmakers will also consider legislation to allow school districts to install cameras on school buses to identify drivers who fail to yield for buses that have stopped to drop off or pick up children. Twenty-three states currently allow the cameras.
» The Florida Board of Governors submitted a $3.57-billion budget request — $540 million more than the previous year — including $160 million to help Florida State University, the University of Florida and the University of South Florida improve their position in national rankings. The BOG is also considering asking the Legislature for $800 million to repair aging buildings.
» The Florida College System is requesting $1.36 billion for the upcoming year and another $529 million for career and adult education. As part of those requests, the FCS is seeking $35 million for the newly created Open Door Grant Program, which provides grants to FCS institutions covering up to two-thirds of the cost of short-term, high-demand programs to close the skills gap and create a pipeline of workers for high demand occupations.
» In 2018 and 2019, lawmakers passed legislation creating an automatic downward adjustment to the corporate income tax as long as net collections by the state exceeded projections in a given fiscal year. The policy has reduced the state’s corporate income tax from 5.5% (before the cuts went into effect) to 3.535% in 2021. Unless lawmakers act this year, the reduced rate — currently the second-lowest in the nation — will sunset in July and revert to 5.5% at the start of the fiscal year. Florida TaxWatch is encouraging lawmakers to pass legislation to prevent that bump and fix the so-called “retail glitch” — a drafting error in the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that makes it harder for businesses to plan for the tax year and upgrade their facilities. The error effectively tripled the depreciation period for major investments from 15 to 39 years. While subsequent federal legislation (The Cares Act) fixed the glitch at the federal level, Florida needs to codify it at the state level.
» CFO Jimmy Patronis is proposing a sales tax exemption on purchases of impact-resistant doors, windows and roof reinforcements to harden homes and businesses.
» Last year, lawmakers added a new tax holiday called Florida Freedom Week, which runs from July 1-7 and provides tax-free admission to sporting events, festivals, state parks, as well as purchases of certain fishing, boating camping and other outdoor supplies. The Florida Retail Federation supports renewing that sales tax holiday and others for buying back-to-school and hurricane supplies.
» Rep. Vance Aloupis (R-Miami) and Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Orlando) are sponsoring bills that would tweak Florida’s money transmission statutes, which have proved to be a stumbling block for Florida cryptocurrency businesses, to clarify how virtual currency is regulated. Under court interpretation of current law, private individuals may need to register as money transmitters to legally exchange bitcoin and other digital currencies with another individual. The legislation — a key priority of the Florida Blockchain Business Association — makes it clear that money transmitter laws and licensing requirements apply only to intermediaries/platforms that enable crypto transactions, and not to individuals trading digital coins.
» DeSantis wants another set of election changes that would include establishing an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State to investigate fraud. The bill would also elevate ballot harvesting — when a third party collects and turns in voters’ ballots — from a misdemeanor to a thirddegree felony. He also wants supervisors of elections to adhere to a timeline for purging ineligible voters from voter rolls and prohibit “unsecure, haphazard” ballot drop box locations. Florida’s 67 supervisors of elections have asked elected officials to “tone down the rhetoric” related to claims of fraud in the 2020 elections, noting that many supervisors “have been threatened” and asking officials to work with them to “understand the safeguards implemented to ensure elections are conducted fairly, securely and accurately.”
» Sen. Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, is sponsoring a resolution proposing a constitutional amendment to make school board elections partisan. In 1998, Florida voters opted to make the elections non-partisan — meaning candidates don’t have to declare their party affiliation when running for office or in partisan primaries. Reps. Spencer Roach (R-North Fort Myers) and Tyler Sirois (R-Cape Canaveral) are sponsoring companion legislation in the Florida House. If the resolutions pass, the amendment would go on the 2022 ballot.
» The Florida Hospital Association and other health care industry leaders are looking for help from lawmakers to bolster education and training for nurses. Florida was already about 11,500 RNs short in 2019 before COVID-19 hit and accelerated the crisis. Turnover among nurses in Florida rose to 25% during the pandemic, and the turnover rate among critical care nurses (who staff intensive care units) hit 30%. A report commissioned by the FHA and the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida projects the shortage will grow to nearly 60,000 by 2035 if nothing is done. Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, says it will take a “public-private” response that prioritizes funding for nursing school programs to get a handle on the problem. “Fundamentally, it will come down to the availability of nurse faculty,” Mayhew says. “Just like hospitals are struggling to hire nurses in these extremely wage-competitive market, our universities and community colleges are similarly struggling to recruit nurse faculty.”
» Sen. Ben Albritton’s Modernization of Nursing Home Facility Staffing Act would pare the hours of nursing care provided to residents of nursing homes. Under current law, skilled nursing facilities must provide at least 3.6 hours of direct patient care per day — with at least one hour of that care provided by a nurse and 2.5 hours provided by a certified nursing assistant. Albritton’s bill would allow 2.5 hours to be performed by any “non-nursing direct care staff,” not necessarily a CNA. It would also get rid of state law that prohibits nursing homes from accepting new admissions when they slip below minimum staffing requirements for two consecutive days, though they would still be subject to a $1,000 fine.
» Turf battles over expanding the scope of practice of certain medical professionals will resume.
Florida’s optometrists, who provide routine eye care but are not medical doctors, want to expand their services to include certain laser and non-laser eye surgeries approved by the Board of Optometry. Florida ophthalmologists, who are MDs, have long opposed such moves.
The Florida Association of Nurse Anesthesiology, which represents 3,800 certified registered nurse anesthetists, is also renewing its push for fewer supervision requirements for CRNAs. The Florida Society of Anesthesiologists opposes the changes.
The Florida Retail Federation wants retail pharmacy staff to be able to administer vaccines — a move they say will increase access to preventive care and help bridge the gap in rural areas.
» Efforts to increase data privacy — a key priority of House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Gov. Ron DeSantis — are likely to resume. Last year’s legislation would have required companies that collect information from consumers via apps and websites to reveal what data they’ve collected from their users and how they plan to use it. But a provision in the bill that would have allowed individuals to sue companies that misuse that information sparked intense pushback from the Florida business community, which worried it could lead to a flood of lawsuits and create a bonanza for Florida’s trial lawyers. More than 343 lobbyists registered to work on the issue, mostly in opposition. The biggest proponent of the measure is Propel Florida, a “social advocacy” organization about which little is known other than its address — a box at a UPS store in Lithia.
» The Florida Realtors group advocates providing down-payment assistance for Florida’s “frontline workers” — nurses, police officers and firefighters — who seek to buy homes. The proposed Hometown Heroes Housing Program would provide low-interest loans for up to 5% of the purchase price (not to exceed $25,000) of a primary residence to help cover closing and down payment costs. The balance of the loan would be due at closing if the property is sold, refinanced, rented out or transferred. Rep. Anthony Rodriguez (R-Miami) is sponsoring a bill that would authorize cities and counties to grant property tax exemptions to owners of property used for affordable housing.
CITIZENS PROPERTY INSURANCE
» The state-run insurer of last resort is growing at about 5,000 policies per week — an unsustainable pace that has pushed the company’s exposure to more than $213 billion. That will likely balloon to $320 billion next year when Citizen’s policy count rises to 1 million. The exposure is significant, since all Florida residents — regardless which company insures them — can be assessed if Citizens can’t pay claims. During committee meetings last fall, Barry Gilway, president of Citizens, attributed the growing policy count to a troubled private insurance market, which tallied about $1 billion in losses in 2021. Gilway says legislation passed in 2021 that allows Citizens to raise rates from 10% to 15% over a five-year glide path was a “move in the right direction” but hasn’t really helped that much. Sen. Jeff Brandes has proposed legislation that would allow “surplus lines” companies, which provide coverage for higher-risk properties, to take policies from Citizens. Citizens’ officials have also suggested making marketing and technology upgrades to the Florida Market Assistance Plan (a free referral service to help consumers find private market coverage), increasing the number of home inspections it conducts and tweaking its depopulation programs.
» Lawmakers will consider changes to Florida condo regulations following last year’s collapse of a 12-story beachfront condominium in Surfside that killed 98 people. A Florida Bar task force has recommended that every Florida condo three stories or taller undergo a structural inspection by the end of 2024, with repeat inspections every five years after. The task force also recommended empowering condo associations to impose assessments on owners or borrow money to pay for repairs as well as boosting requirements for cash reserves. The task force also found that the Florida Condominium Act contains “no express maintenance, repair or replacement standards for boards to follow” and suggests that lawmakers create inspection protocols using inspection reports as a model.
» CFO Jimmy Patronis would like $10 million for new vehicles, equipment and training for the state’s eight urban search and rescue teams, which were deployed for about a month to the Surfside condo collapse. “Their equipment took a totally different type of abuse. Teams were working 12-hour shifts around the clock” as they helped recover 98 bodies, Patronis says.