Florida legislative session: 5 issues we're watching

By Christie Zizo, Digital Media Producer
Last Updated: Tuesday, January 09, 2018, 12:39 PM EST

The Florida legislative session is underway, which means for the next two months, the state’s lawmakers will decide the new laws, fees and taxes that will affect your life.

The session is usually held in the spring, but in even years, it’s held in January so that lawmakers have more time to campaign for re-election (or election, if they’re aiming for higher office), and you can bet the 2018 midterm elections are on lawmakers’ minds as they decide what to do with taxpayer dollars — and how they can look good for voters.

Between the Florida House and the Florida Senate, there are close to 3,000 bills up for consideration. In some cases, the bills are companion bills, necessary to get a final piece of legislation to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk. But in any given year, only about 10 percent of bills filed will make it through the Legislature to Scott’s desk — and bills filed by Democratic lawmakers have even less of a chance, because Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature.

Twenty-four bills are already ready for floor debate and vote, including bills outlawing sanctuary cities, making an increase to the Bright Futures Scholarship permanent, a bill that bans sports franchises from leasing public land for a facility, repealing motor vehicle no-fault insurance and a bill prohibiting red light cameras after 2021.

Then there’s the state budget. Scott has proposed big increases in environmental and education spending (which is interesting to those following Scott’s administration; it's seen as evidence that he's preparing for a U.S. Senate run).

But with Hurricane Irma and the influx of refugees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricane Maria, the money is likely not there for extra spending.

So aside from these bills, here are five other areas to watch for during the 2018 session:

Guns

As is the case every year, there are a slew of bills expanding gun rights, and a slew of bills expanding gun control.

While normally many of these bills never see the light of day, it's an election year. So expect to see some movement on gun rights bills — not so much gun control bills.

Here are just a few we are watching:

SB 120: Firearms; Providing legislative intent; requiring a business, organization, or entity that prohibits a concealed weapon or firearm licensee from carrying a weapon or firearm onto its property to assume certain responsibility for the safety and defense of such licensee; providing that the responsibility of such business, organization, or entity extends to the conduct of certain people and animals, etc. 

SB 334: Firearm Purchases; Requiring the Department of Law Enforcement to include on a standard form certain questions concerning a potential firearm buyer’s criminal history or other information relating to the person’s eligibility to make the firearm purchase; requiring the department to notify law enforcement officials when a potential sale or transfer receives a nonapproval number, etc. 

SB 400: Concealed Weapons or Concealed Firearms; Requiring the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to issue a license if, in addition to other specified criteria, the applicant has undergone a mental health evaluation conducted by certain licensed professionals and has been determined to be competent, etc. 

SB 456: Bump-fire Stocks; Prohibiting the importation, transfer, distribution, transport, sale, giving, or possession of a bump-fire stock in this state; authorizing a person to relinquish a bump-fire stock to a law enforcement agency or the Department of Law Enforcement, etc. 

Texting while driving

In Florida, texting-while-driving is currently a secondary offense. That means, for example, if you run a red light and were on the phone at the time, you can be ticketed for running the light and for being on your phone.

SB 90 would allow law enforcement to stop cars and cite people who are texting while driving. The money from the fine will go to the Emergency Medical Services Trust Fund.  

This is not the first time this bill has been filed, and although it has bipartisan support, it’s anyone’s guess whether it will actually pass this time around.

Nursing home generators

The deaths of more than a dozen people at a South Florida nursing home after Hurricane Irma because the facility lost power spawned several bills on the issue. SB 284, for instance, requires the Agency for Health Care Administration to adopt and enforce rules requiring a nursing home to have an emergency power source and fuel. Meanwhile, SB 372 requires the Florida Public Service Commission to make sure utilities prioritize nursing home facilities for restoring power.

Restoration of civil rights for felons

There is already an effort to put restoration of voting rights for convicted felons who have completed their sentences on the 2018 ballot. SB 430 would simply do the deed through the Legislature instead. The bill automatically restore a felon's rights (other than the right to own firearms) after they complete both a prison sentence and their supervision period. The bill would not apply to felons who have committed certain violent crimes such as murder or aggravated manslaughter, or sexual crimes such as child molestation or sexual battery.  

Children’s health care

There is no bill yet, per se, but this is something to watch, especially after lawmakers get to talking about the budget. Florida’s KidCare program is funded largely by the federal government through the Children’s Health Insurance Program. It provides health care to more than 200,000 children whose families make too much money for Medicaid but who can’t afford to buy health insurance or does not have access through an employer.

Congress allowed the program to expire last year and has not yet renewed it. Republicans have only offered a renewal proposal if the money is taken from other health care programs, which Democrats are against. 

There is currently only enough federal money to fund the program nationwide through March. But some states will start running out of money this month. States are already preparing to freeze or shut down their state programs if CHIP is not renewed. Other states are finding ways to keep the program covered for now. What will Florida do? Stay tuned.