When the Florida Legislature convenes on Jan. 14 for the start of its 60-day session, lawmakers will be faced with several important issues – with raising teacher pay and placing new limits on abortion among the top priorities.
Here is a list of several other issues the legislature will tackle during the session.
- Teacher Pay: Gov. Ron DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and FEA President Fedrick Ingram agree on something—Florida teachers need to be paid more. But how much more, and how the money is distributed, is something lawmakers will have to decide. DeSantis has pitched raising starting salaries for teachers to $47,500. But the FEA says that doesn’t include seasoned teachers.
- Teacher Bonuses: Florida’s ‘Best and Brightest’ Bonus program awards high-performing teachers with extra money, but it’s also been subject to lawsuits and criticism. DeSantis wants to get rid of it. But, he also wants to replace it with ANOTHER bonus program—to the chagrin of teachers’ unions, and teachers who say bonuses aren’t enough.
- School Funding: There’s more to public education than just teachers. The FEA has called for a 10-year, $22 billion boost to public schools. Funding has jumped for them under DeSantis. But the state is facing budget headwinds (as noted by the state Economist Amy Baker) and education makes up the biggest part of the state’s general fund spending.
- College Athlete Compensation: In October, House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee followed California’s lead in October and proposed legislation that would allow college athletes to be able to get paid for use of their name and likeness. DeSantis said he was in favor of the idea, though Senate President Bill Galvano seemed lukewarm.
- Correctional Officers (shifts, pay): Florida DOC Secretary Mark Inch wants to reduce the number of hours worked on shifts. He says the move to longer shifts several years ago has resulted in burnout for correctional officers. Inch is also pushing to raise salaries—both come as the state’s prison system is the third largest in the U.S. with one of the lowest-paid workforces. Reports of prisoner abuse, violence and crumbling prisons are increasingly catching lawmakers’ attention. Inch himself has been circulating a book called The Devil’s Butchershop to legislators and lawmakers. The book discusses events leading to the 1980 riot at New Mexico’s state prison—one of the deadliest on record.
- Reform Efforts-Gain Time, Mandatory Minimums, Early Release: Florida lawmakers will once again consider ways to reduce the state’s prison population, which is among the largest in the U.S. One proposal (SB 424) grants judges more leeway to decide who qualifies as a low-risk offender and is eligible for non-prison based punishments. Another proposal would allow offenders who serve 65% of their sentence to get more time off for good behavior, a practice known as gain time (SB 394/HB 189). A third proposal would reduce and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses.
- Felon Voting: Voters approved Amendment 4 on the 2018 ballot, which restored the right to vote to most felons who completed their sentences. But earlier this year, the legislature created a law defining what “completion of sentence” means—leading to a lawsuit. A judge ruled in October that requiring felons to repay all fines, fees and restitution before registering to vote is unconstitutional. DeSantis has appealed. A temporary hold on the law is in place. Bottom line: State cannot deny right to vote based on failure to pay.
- Conversion Therapy: Twenty-two Florida cities and counties have approved bans on the use of conversion therapy on minors. The practice seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation. Medical organizations have warned against it. In October, a judge threw out Tampa’s ban citing parental rights concerns. Measures in the legislature would ban the practice statewide for people under 18.
- Abortion: One measure would ban abortions based on a diagnosis of Down Syndrome (SB 734), and another would require those under 18 to get parental consent before they could get an abortion (SB 404). Current law only requires notification. A similar effort failed during the last legislative session. Florida courts have struck down similar laws in the past. However, a new conservative-leaning Florida Supreme Court has bolstered hopes that should the legislature pass and the governor approve new limits on abortion, those laws would be upheld.
- Immigration/E-Verify: After banning so-called sanctuary cities and requiring local law enforcement cooperate with federal immigration officials last year, DeSantis now wants both public and private employers to use the federal E-Verify system to make sure their workers are legally eligible to work in the United States.
- Mental Health: Galvano has tasked the Infrastructure and Security Committee led by Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon) with reviewing the driving factors behind mass shootings and gun violence. Lawmakers are looking into the need for everything from more gun safety legislation to more access to firearms. The need for more mental health funding has also become a part of the conversation. While experts say mental illness is not the cause of gun violence, some question whether better mental healthcare and use of a behavioral threat assessment tool to more carefully track people who exhibit warning signs could be a key to reducing gun violence.
- Background Checks: Lawmakers including Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation), Sen. Gary Farmer (D-Fort Lauderdale) and Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami) want to close the so-called “background check loophole” that lets people purchase firearms in a private sale without first having to go through the background checks required when people make purchases through licensed dealers.
- Assault Weapons Ban: Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Winter Park) wants to ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. He’s sponsoring a bill (HB 627) to do that. It’s Guillermo Smith’s fourth time pushing for a ban. The move is a response to the shootings at Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Opponents argue the language in Smith’s bill is too broad and could result in a widespread ban on guns. Smith told Florida Politics Sen. Gary Farmer (D-Fort Lauderdale) would file a companion in the Senate. Sen. Linda Steward (D-Orlando) is sponsoring a bill (SB 794) to ban the sale of large-capacity magazines.
- Campus Carry: Lawmakers are once again pushing legislation that would let people with a conceal carry permit bring guns on college and university campuses. Rep. Anthony Sabatini (R-Clermont) filed HB 6001. Florida State University Professor John Thrasher says he and other university presidents will continue efforts to fight the bill
Business & Development:
- Visit Florida: Florida’s public-private tourism marketing arm, Visit Florida, is fighting for its political life. It was set to expire last year, but the legislature extended it to run through 2020. The agency ran afoul of house leaders several years ago over secretive, high-priced contracts with celebrities. Since then, its state funding has been drastically scaled back, and it lost a third of its staff this year due to budget cuts. If lawmakers don’t approve an extension, the agency is set to shutter next July. House Speaker Jose Oliva would not be sorry to see the agency die.
- Affordable Housing: Florida’s housing crunch isn’t easing, and more areas of the state are growing increasingly unaffordable. Housing advocates continue their call for the legislature to award all the money in the state housing trust fund to affordable housing efforts. In the past, lawmakers have used some of that money to fund other efforts. But after years of hurricanes and rising home prices, pressure is increasing to fund affordable housing projects.
- Insurance-Windshield Claims: Last year Florida lawmakers cracked down on Assignment of Benefits Abuses, where homeowners sign over their claims to contractors who negotiate directly with insurers. Insurers say it resulted in rising claims, and thus, rising rates. This year, the legislature is taking a closer look at auto windshield claims and seeking to crack down on companies that solicit repairs from owners. It’s part of ongoing efforts to reduce insurance rates in the state.
- APD Funding: APD is the state agency that doles out funding to people with developmental disabilities. It’s been plagued by a years-long waiting list for services and is perennially over budget. The house has floated the idea of turning APD’s programs over to managed-care companies, as it’s done with the state’s Medicaid program. But disability rights advocates fear that will mean fewer services, not better ones, and say private insurers aren’t familiar with the kind of specialty care people with disabilities require. The Agency for Healthcare Administration, APD and the Florida Senate appear to be in agreement that privatizing APD’s services is not the best way forward. However, the House isn’t. DeSantis has called to increase APD’s budget in the upcoming year.
- Vaccines: In the wake of a hepatitis outbreak and other easily cured diseases, Florida lawmakers are increasingly concerned about the number of people, kids especially, going unvaccinated. Last session, a measure mandating vaccines and limiting exemptions failed. Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez listed the issue as “one to watch” shortly after the 2019 session ended. And at a community meeting in Jacksonville, the topic re-emerged.
- Marijuana: Florida’s current way of doling out medical marijuana licenses and requiring the same company to handle growing, cultivation, selling and delivery has been repeatedly shot down by courts. DeSantis has likened the state’s vertical integration system to a “cartel.” Two bills in the legislature would do away the current system (SB 212/HB 797). Another measure would add sickle cell anemia to the list of qualifying medical conditions (SB 645) and a third seeks to give employees protection against being fired if they have medical marijuana license (HB 595/SB 962).
- Vaping/E-Cigarettes: The number of vaping-related illnesses coupled with rising rates of teen vaping has lawmakers looking for ways to curb the trend. DeSantis has stopped short of calling for a ban on e-cigarette flavors, but he and others say vaping and e-cigarettes are a health hazard. An effort to raise the smoking age to 21 failed last year but is back. Congress recently took action to raise the purchasing age to 21 and the FDA has approved a partial ban on flavors. A spokesman for Rep. Jackie Toledo says lawmakers will likely amend their tobacco bills to reflect the federal changes and focus on enforcement and taxation.
- Climate Change/Resilience & Sea Level Rise: Florida Republican politicians are acknowledging climate change. That’s a change from a few years ago when the term was informally banned from use. DeSantis has named a Chief Science Officer and a Chief Resilience Officer, and Florida legislative leaders are turning their attention toward helping the state adapt to sea level rise. A Senate proposal would make the Chief Resiliency Officer a permanent position in the office of the governor and create a Sea Level Rise task force to study ways to shore up infrastructure. Another Senate plan calls for a sea level rise study to be done on any publicly funded building built in coastal areas. And a third sets the stage for the state to look into creating a networks of electric vehicle charging stations along highways. All are Senate bills. Other proposals (mostly by Democrats) call for weaning the state off of fossil fuels and the creation of an inter-agency program in the Department of Environmental Protection that evaluates potential risk and impacts of climate change.
- Ballot Name Listings: A Florida judge recently ruled against a decades-old law requiring the party holding the governor’s mansion to be listed first on the ballot. The judge says that gives one party a benefit over another. The law was written by Democrats, but Republicans have benefitted for the past 20 years. It’s up to the legislature to craft a new system.
- Elections Security: Secretary of State Laurel Lee warns indirect attacks on websites can cause as much damage as direct attacks on voting systems. Florida’s been trying to shore up its elections security after learning a foreign government tried to gain access to at least two county systems.
- All Voters, Vote: Lawmakers from both parties are watching a constitutional amendment proposal that would allow any voter, regardless of party, to cast ballots in primaries. The parties argue that dilutes the will of party faithful—supporters of the All Voters Vote plan say the current system leaves out 3.7 million voters who aren’t affiliated with the two main parties.
- Constitution Revision Commission: Still smarting from the results of the 2018 election that saw voters approve several new constitutional amendments, some bundled together—Florida lawmakers say it’s time to get rid of the once-every-20-years group that has the power to bypass the legislature and put amendments directly onto the ballot. Another effort would limit the CRC to one issue per amendment.
- National Popular Vote: Democrats are pushing bills that would require Florida’s electors to cast their electoral votes in favor of the candidate who wins the popular vote. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the 2016 election, and Donald Trump won the Electoral College — and thus the presidency.