TALLAHASSEE — It’s finally here: 2020. The year where political news threatens to consume vast amounts of the national bandwidth as the presidential election cycle churns with increasing ferocity.
But before the November election, this spring comes the annual legislative session, when state lawmakers and lobbyists flock to Tallahassee for 60 days of bill-passing, fiery debates and backroom deals. This year’s session starts Tuesday and is scheduled to end March 13.
Typically, sessions held during election years are sleepy affairs, as the state’s top politicians seek to avoid controversy in the months before voters head to the polls. News events, such as the 2018 Parkland shooting, can force lawmakers to ignore this impulse and pass meaningful legislation, but the circumstances have to be just right.
This year, however, already promises to feature several consequential issues.
Here are five major topics to watch. (Note: we’ve excluded the proposals to increase teacher pay from this list, because we published an entire story dedicated to the early debate on that topic. Read more about that here.)
When nearly two-thirds of Florida voters approved Amendment 4 in 2018, it was heralded as the greatest expansion of voting rights in decades. Advocates believed more than a million felons who had completed “all terms” of their sentences would become eligible to vote.
But GOP lawmakers last session, overcoming intense criticism that they were imposing a “poll tax,” required felons to pay back all court fees, fines and restitution before registering to vote.
Those requirements prevented hundreds of thousands from registering because they couldn’t afford to immediately pay off their financial obligations. They also created an expensive administrative nightmare for local elections supervisors and court clerks. The new law required officials in some cases to dig up archival court files to determine whether a felon had paid their court fees and fines.
For restitution, the situation is even worse: no one in Florida tracks it. How many are affected by the new law? No one knows.
The two architects of last year’s legislation are expected to make tweaks this session. But how radical those changes will be.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, recently introduced a bill to simplify the voter registration form. A federal judge criticized lawmakers for changing the form last year in a way that would discourage felons from registering.
Brandes’ Senate Bill 1354 would undo those changes by requiring applicants to check a box affirming that they’re either not a felon or have had their rights restored.
Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, has said that by 2022 he wants to require elections supervisors to determine whether applicants are eligible to vote.
The federal judge also imposed a preliminary injunction requiring Florida to allow felons to vote if they can’t afford their fines, fees or restitution.
That injunction is being appealed by Laurel Lee, Florida’s Republican secretary of state who oversees the elections system. If it’s upheld, both Brandes and Grant said they would have to honor it. But how officials calculate whether someone is too poor to vote could become yet another complication to the historic amendment.
Lawmakers look likely to pass a controversial bill that would require parental consent for minors to obtain abortions after the proposal failed to gain traction last year.
Senate Bill 404 (not to be confused with the “not found” error message) would add a requirement that minors must have consent from a parent or guardian consent before an abortion — unless it’s an emergency or a case where the minor is already a parent. Florida law already requires that minors notify parents or guardians before an abortion or obtain a judicial waiver to bypass that requirement.
Abortion in Florida has had a thorny legal past. A previous parental consent law was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 1989. Courts also struck down a law requiring parental notification, though voters restored that law through a constitutional amendment.
Both House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, have showed support for the bill, signaling likely passage through both chambers. The bill has already passed its only House committee and is likely to clear its remaining two Senate committees in the initial weeks of session.
School safety and guns
The 2018 Parkland shooting prompted two laws and dozens of requirements in schools throughout Florida, many of which are just now being implemented. Some changes are already in effect. All public schools must have armed security and conduct regular active shooter drills. Of all the changes, none loom more ominously than the statewide grand jury, created in February 2019 to broadly investigate compliance with the school safety laws.
Along with the post-Parkland commission’s recommendations, these reports are likely to inspire more school safety measures in 2020. The grand jury issued one of the most explosive proposals: Harsher penalties for non-compliant school districts, including the removal from office of superintendents, administrators and school board members.
Lawmakers have vowed to take these recommendations seriously. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the post-Parkland commission, said he’s working with top legislators to cement these ideas into a bill.
Two more mass shootings last summer prompted Galvano to call for a round of legislation like what was passed in 2018, including looking at additional gun control measures.
A Senate committee is supposed to introduce legislation, but just how ambitious it will be is unclear. Committee chairman Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said closing background check loopholes “makes sense.”
But passing a serious gun control bill this session is unlikely. Oliva has already said he’s against it.
Cracking down on illegal immigration was one of the major themes of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2018 run for governor.
Last year, lawmakers failed to deliver on one of his most-repeated campaign promises: requiring Florida businesses to run their employees through the federal program called e-Verify to ensure they’re documented.
Already, DeSantis has sharpened his rhetoric in calling for lawmakers to make e-Verify a top priority this session.
During a November news conference, he justified the program by citing examples of violence and crime committed by undocumented residents, comments that were sharply criticized by immigration supporters.
The issue has been a target of some GOP lawmakers for years, but it has been stymied by many of the party’s corporate donors, large companies — especially in tourism, construction and agriculture — that depend on cheap labor.
Those companies assert much of their power through campaign contributions, which they often filter through third parties like The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida.
While lawmakers showed last year that they are willing to appease DeSantis on issues they previously opposed, key Senate Republicans have already come out against it. Galvano said the requirement placed an additional burden on businesses.
“It is something that the Florida Senate — or at least this administration — does not endorse,” the Senate president told The News Service of Florida.
His designated successor as president, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said earlier this month that the requirement isn’t good policy for Florida employers.
Issues surrounding sentencing and Florida’s crowded prisons have received increased attention in recent months, as high-profile prison beatings and lawsuits made headlines. There’s also been an uptick of prison visits by state lawmakers, indicating more interest in an area of government that’s typically lower on the priority list.
Adding to that mix is Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, who has warned of a crisis in the state’s prisons if more isn’t done to decrease heavy turnover and burnout among correctional officers, who are currently required to work 12-hour shifts for low pay. A new law that might help — or make it worse — lowered the age for prison guards from 19 to 18 to increase the pool of potential job applicants.
Inch recently asked the Legislature for the funding to start moving prisons back to normal 8 1/2-hour shifts, as well as for more programs to slightly reduce widespread inmate idleness. Lawmakers will craft the budget near the end of session, when it will become clear whether these requests are fulfilled.
The Times/Herald published a story in November about hundreds of prisoners serving time for selling or illegally possessing prescription painkillers, who would receive a fraction of current sentences if their same crimes had been committed today. That’s because lawmakers have dramatically eased the sentencing requirements for these drug crimes in recent years, after realizing the previous system was erroneously labeling low-level crimes, often motivated by addiction, as “drug trafficking.”
Will the new sentencing law be applied to those old cases?
Early indicators aren’t good. A top House lawmaker who chairs the judiciary committee said he doesn’t think this is an issue for the Legislature. Stay tuned.