Florida Legislature is down to deal-making days of session

Republican leaders are employing the politics of leverage, trading one leadership priority for another to get their pet projects across the finish line.
The Capitol in Tallahassee is seen following Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on March 3.
The Capitol in Tallahassee is seen following Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on March 3. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published April 16, 2021|Updated April 16, 2021

TALLAHASSEE  -- For more than eight hours on April 9, the Senate Appropriations Committee met to discuss a single piece of legislation and was prepared to extend the meeting into the next day, a Saturday, if needed.

It was the Senate’s turn to take up House Bill 1, the most controversial bill of the 2021 legislative session and a top priority of both Gov. Ron DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

It was not an easy lift for the Senate, where 24 Republicans hold a secure majority but depend on the 16 Democrats to withhold procedural roadblocks for them to advance their agenda. The measure enhances penalties for crimes committed during protests that turn violent and gives people a vehicle to sue government if their property is damaged during a riot. It has the ancillary effect of increasing many third-degree penalties to first-degree felonies, which means those convicted could lose their right to vote, and is fiercely opposed by Democrats.

The committee where the bill was supposed to be heard is chaired by Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat who, along with the rest of the Democrats in the chamber, considers HB 1 a racist attempt to target minorities who attempt to exercise their right to assemble and protest.

But, after some parliamentary gymnastics, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, sidestepped Pizzo’s committee and got the bill to the full Senate Thursday, where it passed on a party-line vote with one Republican joining Democrats. The measure is now headed to the governor for his signature.

It was a demonstration of the “Let’s Make a Deal” stage of the Florida Legislative session, when Republican leaders employ the politics of leverage, trading one leadership priority for another to get their pet projects across the finish line.

In exchange for moving the bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 9, some of Simpson’s top priorities started getting traction in the House. Among them: a bill to extend liability protections for the sugar industry in the face of a class-action lawsuit over sugar cane burning; legislation intended to keep gambling legislation alive, another to limit the traditional pension system for new state workers, and a proposal to derail large parts of a controversial toll-road plan that Democrats, environmentalists and Simpson wanted ended.

Sugar growers typically burn cane fields to speed up the harvest process. Residents and environmentalists are concerned

“The last two weeks of session have always been a master class in horse trading, and this is year is no different,’' said Rep. Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat.

The public is pretty much shut out this year

What is different this year is the pandemic protocols have almost completely closed off the Capitol to the public, allowing few Florida residents to show up to voice their concerns or support over controversial bills. The infusion of $10 billion in federal stimulus money also helps leaders grease votes for reluctant legislators by promising they will bring home budget and infrastructure projects in exchange for support on controversial bills.

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“The giant, dirty little secret about Florida’s ‘small government’ Legislature is about half of our budget is all draw-downs from the federal government,’' Jenne explained. “That $10 billion is going to keep us up and running and we don’t have to have this terrible fear that we are going to run out of cash to keep people in school and keep people alive.”

By sending HB 1 to the governor, Sprowls also now expects to see Senate action on his initiatives, including a bill to extend the amount of time new mothers can receive Medicaid benefits from 60 days of coverage to one year, and a plan to revamp workforce education.

The Senate’s budget proposal does not include the maternal Medicaid extension, said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, the Senate’s healthcare budget chair. Last week, he remained coy about its prospects.

He said he wants to include the Speaker’s maternal health policy in the Senate budget but, many other interested parties are pushing worthy issues. “You are asking me which child is my favorite,” he said. “I love ‘em all.”

Nearly a dozen leadership priorities remain aloft as legislators juggle dozens of bills in the final two weeks left before they are scheduled to adjourn April 30.

What will land and what will crash depends on carefully managing expectations of legislators, a willingness to compromise and a bit of luck.

“There’s never an ‘our bill or bust,’ ’' Simpson explained when asked about a bill sought by the property insurance industry that is his priority. “This is a process, right. There’s three: there’s a House or Senate and there’s a governor’s office that will have a say in this. And so we will work this through the process.”

A look at the top priorities

Here’s a summary of where some of the outstanding priorities stand:

▪ Gambling: A top priority of Simpson has been to negotiate a gambling deal that would allow the state to bring sports betting books to Florida’s parimutuels and sports stadiums and revive the annual payments of at least $350 million from the Seminole Tribe to the state. Sprowls has been less enthusiastic about advancing a gaming deal and, while the governor must negotiate the agreement with the Tribe, Simpson has attempted to keep the possibility of legislation alive by proposing some reforms to the state’s gaming regulation. So far, the House has agreed.

▪ Property insurance: One of Simpson’s priorities that is still awaiting action in the House is SB 76, which would make a number of changes to property insurance, such as lowering the amount of time allowed to file a property insurance claim to two years instead of three and requiring homeowners to take additional steps before filing a lawsuit against their insurer. The bill is sought by insurers and opposed by trial lawyers, whom House leaders have sided more than insurers the last few sessions. The House does have its own property insurance bill, which is milder than the Senate version, but it still needs to be heard in one more committee.

▪ Workforce education: A priority of Sprowls, HB 1505 and HB 1507 overhaul Florida’s career and education help systems for job seekers and students with a streamlined system that would allow people to access services from multiple agencies through one website. The measures, which were influenced by a Tampa Bay Times investigation into Career Source Tampa Bay, have passed the House and are awaiting progress in the Senate.

▪ Education scholarship programs: House leaders want to end funding to Access to Better Learning and Education (ABLE) grants, which help Floridians attend for-profit private colleges and universities, while the Senate has no similar proposal. The Senate instead has proposed cuts to the Bright Futures college scholarship program, which covers 75% or 100% of students’ tuition costs based on merit and high academic achievements while the House leaves the program intact.

▪ School choice: The Senate has proposed creating a trust fund that would combine several school scholarship programs into one that allows corporate donations and state funds to pay for vouchers. The House offers a scaled down version.

▪ Data privacy and Big Tech: The Senate is ready to take a floor vote on SB 1734, which creates the Florida Privacy Protection Act that requires any company that collects and sells consumer information to allow consumers to opt out of the company selling the information it has collected about them. The House has not advanced a similar bill but instead is moving HB 7013, a priority of the governor. It would bar social-media companies from removing political candidates from the companies’ platforms and violators could be fined up to $100,000 a day.

▪ Lawton Chiles Fund: The House has passed a bill to scrap a fund named after former Gov. Lawton Chiles that earmarks money from a landmark 1997 settlement with tobacco companies to pay for healthcare and biomedical research grants. The Senate has no similar proposal.

▪ State worker pensions: SB 84 would require new state employees to enroll in a 401(k)-style plan instead of the state’s traditional pension plan. The measure, which is opposed by labor unions and Democrats, has passed the Senate but has not moved in the House.

▪ Toll roads: SB 100 would repeal the controversial toll road plan passed by lawmakers in 2019, which has been considered by environmentalists one of the worst proposals to pass the Legislature in years. The measure passed the Senate and on Friday a House committee advanced it, signaling the plan has the support of both leaders.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report

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