Hurricanes And Opioids Among Florida Lawmakers' Priorities
The aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the current dialogue about sexual misconduct, the opioid crisis and an election year in which Florida voters will replace Republican Gov. Rick Scott and all three Cabinet members will all play into the dynamics of the Legislature's annual 60-day session.
The only thing the Legislature is required to do is pass a budget, but there are more than 2,500 bills already filed on a wide range of topics, from ending child marriages to banning sanctuary cities and requiring local governments to comply with and support federal enforcement of immigration laws.
Most bills will die before lawmakers leave town in March. But unlike last year, when lawmakers finished the session without a budget and had to return to Tallahassee a month later, there's a better chance for a smooth finish with several of the players seeking or considering a run for higher office.
In Scott's final year in office, he's seeking $180 million in tax cuts aimed mostly at consumers — something he's sure to remind voters about if he runs for U.S. Senate.
"As governor, we've cut taxes 75 times. I've proposed it for this session. I'm going to do everything I can to keep reducing taxes," Scott recently told reporters.
He's also seeking a boost in public school money, including more money to help teachers buy supplies; $10 million to hire 130 new child protective investigators and abuse hotline counselors and a 10 percent raise for juvenile detention and probation officers.
Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran is considering a run for governor and recently took to Twitter to announce his support for a bill that would prevent cities and counties from providing sanctuary policies for immigrants in the country illegally. That could play well in the Republican primary should he enter the race.
"We must not allow Florida to follow California. On week one of session we're going to pass a bill to keep our Florida communities safe from dangerous sanctuary city policies," Corcoran tweeted.
During a news conference late in 2017, he also said he wants to expand on his effort to hold economic and tourism development councils accountable for their spending. It's similar to an effort last year when he targeted Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, and Enterprise Florida, the state's main economic development agency. Legislation is aimed at preventing agencies from claiming their contracts with vendors should remain private because they're trade secrets.
"To the extent that you have a contract and you're getting $1 of taxpayer money, we want that to be completely open to the public," he said. "If that's so burdensome to them, then don't do business with the state. We all have no shortage of vendors who will come and play by the open and transparent rules."
Senate President Joe Negron's top priority is a bill that will expand a state university scholarship program and provide state universities with money to recruit top faculty and research scholars.
"I said in my designation that I wanted our universities to be elite, national destination universities," he said in a phone interview. "We've made extraordinary progress toward that goal."
There's widespread agreement on two issues: the need to address the opioid crisis and to improve hurricane preparation and response in the wake of Irma, which caused widespread damage throughout the state. Dozens of bills have been filed on the issues.
Lawmakers plan to take a multipronged approach to the opioid crisis, including programs to help addicts, increased penalties for dealers and creating limits and restrictions on how opioids are prescribed. Among the bills is a measure that would create a pilot program to treat infants going through opioid withdrawal.
Hurricane-related legislation includes proposals to require nursing homes and assisted living facilities have a source of emergency power after a storm and to require utilities to prioritize power restoration at those facilities.
Corcoran established a committee assigned to address hurricane-related issues and it has made more than 150 recommendations on storm issues. That includes ideas on making evacuations more efficient and to speed up recovery. Topics include fuel distribution, special needs shelters, property tax breaks for people who can't return home more than six months after a storm and ways to help farmers recover.
Attorney General Pam Bondi is working with lawmakers on a bill to protect government workers who come forward with sexual misconduct allegations and to make sexual misconduct in government an ethics violation.
Among issues that lawmakers will consider is a law that would set the minimum age to marry at 18. Now, children aged 16 and 17 can marry with the consent of both children's parents. But if there's a pregnancy involved, there is no minimum age for marriage as long as a judge approves the marriage license.
Other bills would create a slavery memorial on the Capitol grounds, ban texting while driving, expand workers compensation benefits for first responders to include treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder, end driver license suspensions for nondriving offenses, regulate short-term vacation rentals like Airbnb and VBRO and ban discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people in employment, housing and public accommodation.