ORLANDO, Fla. — For 60 days Florida’s representatives and senators will debate and pass bills on issues that affect us every day – how our schools should be run, who gets access to Medicaid, who should be able to carry a gun and where, how much money should go toward taking care of Florida’s waterways, where new roads should be built, and so much more.
- Legislative Session Runs January 14 to March 13
- Legislature is constitutionally obligated to pass a budget
- Gov. DeSantis proposes a $91.4 billion budget
- FLORIDA GOVERNMENT GUIDE: Find your State Representatives, learn how Florida's government and the session works, and see the latest legislation
There’s only one bill that ever needs to be passed, however, – the Florida budget. After that, some 3,000 bills will try to get through committees to the floor for votes. Last year, only 192 of the 3,494 bills filed in the Florida Legislature actually passed.
We’ve boiled down the legislative session to 13 issues we think you should pay attention to over the next two months.
Gov. DeSantis allocates $900 million to recruit and retain classroom teachers in his budget blueprint, including raising the minimum starting salary to $47,500 for teachers. He also wants to reform the teacher bonus programs.
Not everyone is happy with this. Educators point out that boosting the starting salaries does nothing for teachers already in the classrooms, and in some cases a new teacher would be making more money than an already established one.
Also, House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Miami) says DeSantis’ price tag is too high. Meanwhile, Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) says local school boards should have more flexibility with the money.
The case of guardian Rebecca Fierle is prompting proposals to reform the system that governs the actions of people appointed to take care of seniors and other vulnerable people.
Fierle is under investigation for her care of hundreds of seniors’ personal, financial, and legal matters, including issuing “do not resuscitate” orders, sometimes without the knowledge of the courts or family members.
Among the changes the bills propose, guardians would need court permission to place “do not resuscitate” orders on wards, among some other issues.
The Marjory Douglas High School Public Safety Commission in October urged the state spend more funding on the mental health system, and also called for an overhaul of the system, saying better coordination was needed among law enforcement, educators, and health care providers.
Florida ranks near the bottom among states in per capita spending on mental health. The commission said the money only helps with short-term fixes, instead of long-term solutions.
DeSantis’ budget blueprint also includes an additional $17.6 million for behavioral health, along with $100 million for mental health counseling in schools.
With many of Florida’s metro areas struggling to provide affordable housing, lawmakers are calling for more funding and protections for the trust funds that are supposed to be available for this issue.
The issue is particularly acute in the Orlando area, rated among the worst for affordable housing in the country, and exacerbated by a low average wage.
Gov. DeSantis has proposed adding $387 million for the Sadowski Fund for affordable housing, which has been consistently raided to prop up state budgets. In the 2019-2020 budget, state lawmakers funneled $125 million of the fund over to the general fund.
Supporters of the fund say the legislature has taken $2 billion from the fund over the past decade.
The Sadowski Fund was created in 1992 to provide revenue to local governments to help improve affordable housing efforts.
The revenue is funded from taxes collected from documents.
Bills in the House and Senate would make it so lawmakers going forward cannot transfer money from the State Housing Trust Fund and the Local Government Housing Trust Fund to be used on the general budget. HB 381
Meanwhile two Orlando area lawmakers, Rep. Anna Eskamani and Sen. Victor Torres, have filed bills to make it easier for local communities to impose rent controls.
Another lawmaker is pushing SB 856, a bill to provide a property tax reduction to those building or renovating certain affordable, elderly, or workforce housing projects.
Constant reports of violence and prisoner abuse in the state’s prisons is leading to calls for changes within the correctional system.
The state’s corrections chief is also calling for more money to deal help deal with staffing issues, including high turnover and long hours. He called the current system “unsustainable.”
The governor’s budget proposes $89.7 million, which would be used for a retention pay plan and a pilot project to transition correctional officers to a shorter work schedule.
It also includes money to make infrastructure repairs, provide more security equipment, and expand career and education programs. The budget also includes $11.9 million to begin building a mental health hospital at Lake Correctional Institution.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, are proposing a citizens oversight council for the agency, a bill prohibiting Dept. of Corrections from keeping young people in solitary confinement, and bills that changes the policies for non-violent prisoners to get time off for good behavior.
The number of bills to expand or rein in gun rights number in the dozens, and most of them fail to pass every year.
Florida senators are looking at proposals to expand the red flag law imposed after the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland. The rule allows family members to request a relative’s guns be removed by law enforcement if a person is considered dangerous.
On the flip side, at least one state representative is pushing to repeal the red flag law, along with other provisions of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Act.
Other bills require applicants for a concealed carry permit to undergo a mental health evaluation, requires background checks for the sale or transfer of ammunition, puts more requirements on the transfer of firearms, prohibits the sale of a firearm to a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses, and a proposal for an assault weapons ban.
Once again, Gov. DeSantis is calling on the state legislature to impose E-Verify, a system that requires employers to check whether a prospective employee is eligible to work in the United States.
E-Verify has been a popular talking point among Republicans running for office for years. Yet even though Republicans have control over the state legislature, and the governor’s mansion, E-verify has never made it through a legislative session. This is because it is opposed by some of the party’s biggest donors, including the agricultural, tourism, and construction industries.
Will this be the year?
Climate Change and Resilience
The Florida legislature is finding itself under pressure to deal with major environmental issues, from cleaning up waterways to helping communities deal with rising sea levels.
Gov. DeSantis is proposing $4 billion to tackle a number of issues.
The plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars for the Everglades alone, plus money to target algae blooms like blue-green algae and red tide in other areas.
Another $150 million would be used for cost-share grants for wastewater improvements, including septic conversions and upgrades and stormwater system upgrades.
There is also money proposed for beach nourishment funding, and to protect the state’s coral reefs.
Lawmakers are pushing bills to increase renewable energy usage in state agencies, adopting standards for stormwater management systems for development projects, making changes to recycling rules, and a bill to restrict the sale of certain types of sunscreen that have chemicals that are harmful to reefs. There’s also a bill to ban smoking on the beaches and in state parks.
Indian River Lagoon
The Indian River Lagoon is one of the most important and diverse estuaries in the country, and counties have been struggling with efforts to clean the lagoon over the last few years, amid recurring brown algae tides, a loss of seagrass and the above normal deaths of fish, dolphins, manatees, and birds.
Central Florida lawmakers are calling for the creation of a matching grant program to help local governments pay to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities, expand facilities, and switch communities to sewer systems from septic.
The statewide tourism agency may not survive the legislative session.
Leaders in the Senate and business groups support returning the agency to full funding, saying the marketing agency can mitigate negative media attention after events like hurricanes or red tide.
However, House leaders say tourists would come to Florida even without Visit Florida, and county tourism agencies can pick up the slack.
Gov. DeSantis wants to continue supporting Visit Florida with $50 million in his budget. There are also bills that would keep the agency going through 2028.
Total tourism numbers for 2019 are not in yet, but a record 126.1 million tourists visited Florida in 2018.
The discovery of dozens of African-American graves in the Tampa area is leading to calls to investigate the prevalence of the issue throughout the state.
The pair of bills would create a taskforce to examine the issue, while also coming up with strategies to identify those burial grounds while ensuring dignity and respect for the deceased.
The bills were filed after the discovery of two African-American cemeteries, existing under an apartment complex and a high school campus.
New Toll Roads
Last legislative session, lawmakers approved plans to build three new toll roads. This year lawmakers will look at funding.
But there are also efforts to stop the project, particularly from environmentalists who say construction in the largely rural areas where the roads are planned would threaten species.
The roads would extend the Suncoast Parkway in Tampa Bay to the Georgia state line, connect the Suncoast with the Turnpike near its junction with I-75, and link Polk County with Collier County.
And finally, elections, particularly with the presidential race happening this year.
Gov. DeSantis’ budget plan includes $6.6 million for state-level election oversight, including cyber security enhancements. The secretary of state has recommended the creation of a bureau to deal with cyber security.
Money would also be set aside to help local elections offices continue their cyber security programs.
In the legislature, bills have been filed to allow Florida to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would require electors in the state to vote for the presidential candidate who won the popular vote. Conversely, there are also bills to block that move.
Lawmakers may also have to deal with Amendment 4 again, the voter-approved measure which granted voting rights to non-violent felons who had completed their sentences.
A judge ruled in October that the state cannot require felons to repay fines, fees, and restitution before being allowed to vote. While the governor is appealing the decision, lawmakers may also revisit the law that required felons to pay those fees to begin with.
Information from Spectrum News reporters Greg Angel and Troy Kinsey contributed to this report.