Grappling With the Pandemic, Florida Legislature Prepares for 60-Day Session

The Florida Legislature kicks off its 60-day regular session on Tuesday as the Sunshine State continues to wrestle with the pandemic.

With solid Republican majorities in both chambers, Gov. Ron DeSantis, state House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and state Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, should not face many challenges from the Democrats. But there will be problems in the days to come, especially as DeSantis pushes a $96.6 proposed budget which includes $625 million for Everglades restoration and a new “Resilient Florida” program to deal with climate change with $1 billion in bonds over the next four years.

DeSantis and the GOP leadership are united on several fronts, including election reform. The governor and his allies want to reform the use of ballot drop boxes, ballot harvesting and reform vote by mail options so that only voters who request a ballot will receive one and must be requested every year. They also want to cut down on third parties working with counties on “get out the vote efforts.” The Democrats will push back against the proposal but it will be tough for them to stop these reforms.

Also expect the two sides to clash over a bill on protests. DeSantis and the leaders of the Legislature proposed the “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act” which would make it a third-degree felony to take part in “disorderly assemblies,” block roads and stop transportation and deface monuments. This bill will get a great deal of attention but the GOP should be able to pass it. DeSantis and his allies will also push their proposal to “increase data privacy and security and uphold the rights of Floridians over major technology companies” as they look to limit the powers of “Big Tech.”

Republicans, led by state CFO Jimmy Patronis, will also push legislation to offer more COVID-19 liability protections for restaurants and other businesses, insisting it will help Florida’s economy through the pandemic.

Other issues are also looming as Republicans want to expand school choice and perhaps do more to collect taxes for purchases from out-of-state retailers. Still, with revenue tight, there does not appear to be much hope for major tax relief this session. DeSantis’ proposed budget offers the usual back-to-school and hurricane preparedness sales tax holidays but doesn’t offer much tax-cutting beyond them. Legislators in Tallahassee are looking for more revenue, mulling over various issues including expanding sports betting, the compact with the Seminole tribe, reforming public pensions

In the meantime, eyes are starting to turn to 2022. DeSantis is starting to gear up for reelection and he is drawing more fire from the Democrats, including state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried who is increasingly critical of him. Redistricting is also looming and legislators are also beginning to look ahead to the next election cycle with new districts–and plenty of new opportunities.

Still, with all of the political maneuvering already taking place, the pandemic remains front and center. Even as Floridians line up for vaccines, COVID-19‘s impact on the state government continues to be felt as legislators begin the 60-day dash through the regular session.

 

Kevin Derby wrote this analysis. He can be reached at kevin.derby@floridadaily.com.

 

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