Amid pandemic, Florida lawmakers offer little direct help for average residents

GOP lawmakers say they’ll examine the unemployment system. But so far, they’re looking to help corporations and advance a conservative agenda.
Florida Senator Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, left, greets Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right, during a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, January 14, 2020.
Florida Senator Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, left, greets Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right, during a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, January 14, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]
Published Feb. 27, 2021|Updated Feb. 27, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — On Tuesday, Florida’s 40 senators and 120 representatives will convene in Tallahassee for one of the strangest legislative sessions in the Capitol’s history.

Lobbyists won’t be roaming the halls, seeking out lawmakers to cajole and persuade. The public won’t be packed into committee rooms to protest controversial bills. Most (not all) will be wearing masks.

But while the surroundings will be different, the agenda, advanced by the Republicans who control the Legislature, might not be. During the last two months, GOP legislators haven’t introduced bills addressing the unemployment crisis or questioned how Gov. Ron DeSantis has spent $5.8 billion in federal pandemic relief dollars or probed the performance of state agencies during the last year.

Instead, their committees have worked quickly to advance conservative DeSantis priorities that have little to do with average Floridians, including a controversial anti-riot bill, measures that crack down on “Big Tech” companies and bills that prevent businesses from being sued for spreading COVID-19.

“To the victor go the spoils, and they’re going for it,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Plantation, who leads the Senate Democrats, a minority that can do little to stop GOP legislation.

Yet the new leader of the Florida Senate, Wilton Simpson, a Republican egg farmer and businessman from Trilby, cautions patience.

“I would wait and judge us based on what actually gets done,” he said.

Over the next 60 days, Simpson said he expects a robust overhaul of the state’s unemployment system, including potentially raising the state’s meager $275 weekly benefits, which hasn’t been increased in decades. He also expects his committees to look into the billions the state has spent combatting the pandemic.

But state lawmakers, emboldened by decisive Republican electoral victories last year in Florida, are also using the pandemic and the recent social unrest as an opportunity to advance a conservative agenda they’ve been seeking for years.

More school choice

Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, is proposing legislation (SB 48) that would bring to Florida what many advocates consider to be the Holy Grail in the school choice movement: education savings accounts for students.

The proposal would allow families to dip into taxpayer-backed education savings accounts to pay for children’s private tuition, tutoring, therapy or even college savings, and it could trigger a massive shifting of money from public schools to private.

Diaz says the pandemic has highlighted the need for school choice.

“A lot of parents want to have more flexibility” after the pandemic as kids were shifted to remote learning, said Diaz. “I think this goes with our theme of continuing to move toward individual attention to the student.”

More giveaways to corporations

Rather than focus on aid to individuals, the legislative response so far has been to cater to the needs of employers and industry.

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“A job is inextricably intertwined with the employer who’s providing the job,’' said Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, who chairs the House Pandemic and Public Emergencies Committee. “If you’re going to lift the economy, which we all think we need to do right now, Republican or Democrat, there have to be places for people to go to work. By protecting one you raise all.”

The focus on protecting employers is the justification legislative leaders have provided for scores of bills either written by industries or designed to protect them, including:

  • Natural gas: SB 856/HB 839, part of a national campaign by the natural gas industry, would prevent local governments from limiting greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.
  • Cruise ships: SB 426: Attempts to overturn an initiative approved in November by more than 60 percent of Key West voters which imposes limits on cruise ships docking in the city and bans cruise ships with a capacity of more than 1,300 people from docking in the city. It also limits the number of cruise visitors who can disembark each day to 1,500.
  • Sugar: SB 88 would undercut a class action suit against the sugar industry over air pollution caused by sugar field burning.
  • Restaurants: SB 148 would make the governor’s emergency law that allows restaurants to deliver cocktails-to-go a permanent law.
  • Businesses: HB 7 and SB 72 would shield companies, governments and individuals from lawsuits related to COVID-19, a priority of leaders including House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.

“Businesses have done a fantastic job of trying to keep their customer safe, of trying to keep their employees safe,” Sprowls told reporters recently. “What they need is some reassurance that something that they couldn’t possibly account for was not going to take them off guard and devastate their livelihood.”

Medicaid expansion? ‘No.’

The scope of Medicaid is a perennial issue in the Legislature, with Democrats clamoring for the state to expand the program. They argue the benefits far outweigh the cost — the federal government would pick up 90 percent of the tab, and hundreds of thousands of poor Floridians would gain health coverage.

Republicans argue even 10 percent of what could be a multi-billion dollar expansion is too pricey, and that Medicaid does not provide enough insurance to justify the cost.

The fight is always a big deal because the cost of Medicaid amounts to about a third of all Florida government spending. And that’s just the state’s share of the program: the feds also chip in tens of billions of dollars.

Despite seeing 826,000 more Floridians sign up for Medicaid since the pandemic, however, Republican leaders have so far shown no appetite for expanding the program.

When asked at a news conference last week whether the state Senate would consider expanding the program, Simpson said simply: “no.”

Red meat for the conservative base

DeSantis has made his priorities clear and one measure in particular — an anti-riot bill — is expected to draw tense and emotional debate this session.

DeSantis, Sprowls and Simpson have all backed bills that would crack down on what they have termed “violent agitators.” The governor first proposed the idea last September, after police brutality protests arose in South Florida, Tampa Bay and across the United States.

The proposal would create tougher penalties for crimes that already exist simply because a person was part of a group. Critics worry the proposed criminal enhancements would disproportionately impact communities of color and aggravate community distrust of police.

The measure also puts a bullseye on local government’s authority to determine police budgets. Any resident under the proposal would be able to appeal a local government budget decision tied to police. It is in response to protesters’ calls to “defund the police.”

Democrats have accused DeSantis and Republican leaders of trying to “rebrand” the issue by filing legislation in the wake of the Jan. 6 violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. DeSantis said the bills were filed that night because there was “no time to waste to uphold public safety” in light of the siege at the Capitol.

New revenue sources — and cutting other programs

Raising taxes has been anathema for Republicans for decades. That’s helped kill efforts in past years to collect sales taxes from all online retailers, although it’s not a tax increase.

This year, with a budget that could end up billions of dollars short of projections if more federal help doesn’t arrive as expected, lawmakers are considering finally requiring companies to collect those sales taxes, like it currently does for larger online retailers such as Amazon.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are continuing to try to crack down on labor unions and cut off new entrants into the state’s pension system. The pension proposal would require new state, county and local government employees enroll in a 401(k)-style “investment” plan, rather than a pension system.

Both proposals are adamantly opposed by Democrats and labor unions, which have successfully fought off similar proposals in past years.

“It’s looking pretty rough for the people of Florida,” said Rich Templin, a 20-year lobbyist for the AFL-CIO. “If you have a very big, influential lobbyist here in Tallahassee, you’re probably doing okay.”

Information from News Service of Florida and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the affiliation of Rich Templin due to a reporting error.