Florida’s lawmakers leave their hometowns this month and migrate up to Tallahassee, where they have the potential to reshape the laws, regulations and reality for millions of Floridians.
Tampa Bay’s delegation of representatives and senators have filed dozens of bills for the two-month legislative session, which starts next Tuesday. Here are some bills to note.
Almost all of the bills Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, filed for the 2022 session deal with Florida’s prison system. Many of them are bills she has tried to get through the Legislature in previous years.
One that she’s been attempting since 2019 is HB 171, which would allow an inmate’s minimum prison time, if reduced, to be 65 percent of their sentence instead of 85 percent.
In the Senate, Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, filed a bill proposing a reduction to 75 percent. She said she’d be open to amending her bill to match if the House will hear it.
“I’m open to a little bite of this apple at a time, wherever it is,” Hart said.
Another bill filed by Hart (HB 363) is named after Ava, a baby that died in an Alachua County jail after the mother gave birth in detention. The proposed legislation would let a judge defer a pregnant woman’s sentence until after she gives birth, if the judge sees fit.
Keeping pregnant women out of the system reduces risk and saves the state money on health care coverage, Hart said.
Another bill of hers (HB 169) would create a program to prepare parole-eligible inmates for reintegration to society, and another (HB 485) would designate certain rights inmates are assured — like ventilation and proper health supplies.
“I’ve spent the last few years talking to the people that this directly impacts, and that’s what drives my legislation,” Hart said.
Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, filed SB 660, which would require each law enforcement agency to designate someone trained in trauma response to communicate with victims about rape kits. Another bill of hers, SB 668, would prohibit a confession by a minor from being used in court if it was obtained through officer deception.
A bill (SB 770) from Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, the vice chairperson of the Senate’s criminal justice committee, would bar seriously mentally ill individuals from getting the death penalty. SB 746 would revise the state’s policy for prison release reoffenders, reducing the mandatory length of sentences depending on the crime.
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Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, filed legislation (HB 765) that would prohibit juveniles from being held in solitary confinement unless it’s an emergency, in which case they can be held for 24 hours after all other options are considered.
Rep. Traci Koster, R-Tampa, is seeking a program to allow time off a probation period for good behavior and completion of life-skills programs (HB 1037). She said she’s still working to find a balance between public safety and reintegration, but she believes the bill could pave a way for stronger communities, families and economies by encouraging rehabilitation and curbing recidivism, or the return rate of those released from prison.
“I think it’s another piece of the puzzle in terms of reintegrating folks back into society successfully,” Koster said.
Florida could have recreational marijuana if Brandes passes one of his bills. The bill, SB 776, also rewrites the regulation for Florida’s medical marijuana treatment centers and how they’re licensed in an attempt to diversify the market.
Brandes said he’s certain if the Legislature doesn’t pass a bill legalizing marijuana use there will be a constitutional amendment that does it, even though lawmakers have made it much more difficult to get measures placed on ballots. He said the same thing when trying to pass a medical marijuana bill in 2015, which failed, and then a year later 71 percent of Florida voters approved medical use for the drug.
“I don’t think that there’s any desire for more restrictive marijuana legislation in Florida by the Senate,” Brandes said.
Brandes put forward six bills dealing with marijuana use in Florida. They include provisions that support the remote treatment of patients, known as telehealth (SB 164 and SB 326), ensuring medical marijuana use isn’t considered use of an illicit substance for people seeking other medical therapies (SB 740) and allowing medical marijuana use for short-term visitors who also have a medical card in their home state (SB 744.)
Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, filed a bill (HB 679) in the House that would tackle medical marijuana legislation as part of a bipartisan effort to increase its accessibility through telehealth and crack down on regulation of Delta-8 products, which create a similar feeling to marijuana but can be sold with little oversight.
The Learned bill would also restrict medical marijuana advertising, require a longer training from certifying doctors, create a Medical Marijuana Testing Advisory Council and restrict medical marijuana companies from holding onto an inactive license with the intent of selling it for profit.
Rep. Ardian Zika, R-Land O’ Lakes, sponsored two bills that would expand what health insurance is required to cover. One bill, HB 79, would require coverage for hearing aids for people 21 and under. The second bill, HB 129, would require coverage for at-home COVID-19 tests. It would also require the tests be 100 percent covered whether or not they were prescribed by a doctor, a provision that would expire in December 2023.
Zika said for a family, at-home COVID-19 tests can be costly, but it’s important for them to be accessible to mitigate the spread of the virus.
“The goal is to empower Floridians to get tested,” he said.
A bill that would make private health insurance cover hearing aids for people 21 and under was attempted in the Senate last year, but failed.
Another Zika bill, HB 419, staggers out the cost of premiums for Florida Kidcare. Zika said someone under that insurance plan now only gets a subsidized premium if they’re at 200 percent of the federal poverty line or under, but even a slight raise above that forces them to pay the full cost of the premium, which is over $200 per child.
The legislation, which Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, is sponsoring in the Senate, would instead stagger out the cost of the premiums by income level. For example, someone between 201 and 250 percent of the federal poverty level would pay a reduced premium of $50 per child.
“I know what exactly it means to deal with a medical bill collector and going without health insurance,” Zika said. “Those experiences have taught me the importance of insurance, that we provide affordable health insurance plans out there.”
SB 282 by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, would ensure that peer specialists working in the addiction and recovery field can still be certified and hired, even if they have a criminal background.
“The therapeutic value of one addict helping another is without parallel,” Rouson said.
The bill still prohibits hiring for people found guilty of offenses like sex crimes, violent crimes and some drug crimes. But it would allow for people who had been found guilty of crimes like writing bad checks or simple possession charges to work as peer specialists.
Koster filed HB 843 that would require the Florida Department of Health and the Board of Pharmacy to create and implement an at-home drug disposal program. Pharmacies would provide the at-home disposal program with each opioid prescription.
An often-tried and often-failed Cruz bill (SB 656) has been refiled as the senator attempts to create a statewide family leave policy. The bill would establish a family leave insurance benefits program in the state.
It would also prohibit employers from retaliation against an employee for asking for medical leave and specifies the payout would be 75 percent of the employee’s average weekly wages. Cruz has tried unsuccessfully to pass a family leave policy in the three previous annual sessions.
Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, is seeking a bill (SB 1262) that amends statutes about how people in mental health facilities can communicate. His bill amends the current statute, which says the right to communicate freely and privately with people outside the facility can be restricted if it could affect their well-being or the well-being of others. Burgess’ addition says communication can be restricted but only if a “qualified professional” deems it harmful.
The bill also requires documentation of efforts to secure transportation, shelter, medication access and aftercare appointments upon a patient’s discharge.
After the past two years of putting themselves at direct risk of contracting COVID-19, Hooper wants to reward frontline workers like police officers, firefighters and nurses by helping them buy homes.
Hooper put forward a plan for the “Florida Hometown Hero Housing Program,” (SB 788) which would allow a homeowner to reduce the amount of the down payment or closing cost by five percent of the first mortgage loan.
It would include law enforcement, correctional officers, 911 operators, firefighters, teachers, paramedics and EMTs, health care practitioners, physician’s assistants and home health aides.
“It’s an attempt to make it possible for those hometown heroes to live in the community where they serve,” Hooper said. “It may not go anywhere but I’m gonna give it a try.”
A Brandes bill (SB 1170) seeks to revise the state housing assistance program and remove municipalities from qualifying for it. Instead, it would be left to counties, which then would have the choice to work with municipal governments as they see fit. The bill would also expand to allow counties to use local housing money for a housing voucher program, meant to “assist eligible households seeking workforce housing or very-low-income households, the elderly, or persons with special needs to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market,” according to the bill.
Odds and ends
To prepare for future emergencies, Burgess is seeking an emergency preparedness fund in the Executive Office of the Governor (SB 98). An accompanying bill (SB 96) says the legislative budget commission can convene to transfer money into the fund as long as it’s directly related to a declared emergency.
The bill also requires a nonrecurring deposit of $1 billion into the fund to establish it.
Hooper and Rep. Linda Chaney, R-St. Pete Beach, are sponsoring a bill (HB 489/SB 434) in their respective chambers to save Visit Florida, which would be repealed in 2023 unless the Legislature intervenes to stop the repeal. Hooper said with tourism as the state’s biggest industry, it’s vital to have Visit Florida continue.
A bill by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, could draw a lot of attention as the latest example of state involvement in local governments. It would let businesses claim damages from a municipal government if a law or ordinance imposed by them costs the business a loss of at least 15 percent of their income. The bill (HB 569) says a county or municipality is not liable if the ordinance was in line with state or federal law.
McClure has pushed a similar bill in previous years but it had been specific to waste haulers. This bill would apply to any business.
“I think government should pause and contemplate the effects on the private sector in literally every decision they do,” McClure said.
McClure says another one of his bills may sound like a joke, but he insists it begins an important conversation.
He and Burgess filed a bill (HB 567/SB 1006) to make the strawberry shortcake the state’s official dessert — key lime is the state’s official pie. McClure represents Plant City, which holds the annual strawberry festival.
“There’s certainly a lot of puns and jokes about it,” McClure said. “The intent behind it is to bring awareness to our seasonal fruits and vegetables in the state of Florida.”
Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Bradenton, said he wants to make sure taxpayer dollars stop funding lobbyists. His bill, HB 501, would prohibit any local government from using public money to fund a lobbyist. Someone who violates it is prohibited from lobbying the legislative or executive branch for the next two years. It’s another attempt by state lawmakers to curtail the power of local governments.
Education and the workforce
Burgess is teaming up with two Tampa Bay lawmakers in the House for education legislation.
The first bill would make social media literacy required instruction in public schools. Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, is a sponsor for the bill (HB 361/SB 480) in the House. The bill doesn’t outline what instruction would look like or cover, but says districts must make it available online and tell parents.
Driskell said the bill was created because online discourse is degrading democracy, and that young people are particularly vulnerable. She said looking at recent elections and disinformation shows there needs to be education around using social media wisely.
“I would hope to see young people realize that they do not have to nor should they believe everything they read online,” Driskell said.
Another Burgess education bill, which Rep. Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, sponsors in the House, HB 317, tackles workforce education requirements. The bill would let an employer decide to substitute work experience for a college degree, but it wouldn’t let work experience replace any necessary license or certification.
It’s in line with another Burgess bill (SB 896) that would allow for veterans to seek teaching certifications in Florida, changing the current model that only allows educators with a bachelor’s degree or higher. The bill would allow a veteran who served 48 months with an honorable or medical discharge, 60 college credits and at least a 2.5 GPA to seek teaching certification.
SB 1302, filed by Burgess, would prohibit certification and licensure boards from not considering a candidate solely because of criminal history unless the criminal history relates to the profession. It also establishes an outline of what should be considered when looking at a candidate’s criminal history, including the severity of the crime and the person’s age at the time of the felony.
A candidate can also submit evidence of rehabilitation and their ability to do the profession. If this evidence is provided, they can’t be denied licensure even if their criminal history aligns with the job being sought, according to the bill.
A Cruz bill (SB 670) would ramp up the requirements in schools for fire drills and emergency drills, including requiring drills to manage both natural disaster threats and active shooters. As the bill stands, it would require at minimum 10 drills a year.
Another Cruz bill (SB 676) would require each water fountain in a school built before 1986 to install a filter meant to reduce the consumption of lead. The Hillsborough County School District had previously found lead in its water fountains but kept it quiet from families, according to a Tampa Bay Times investigation. It is a bill she attempted to pass previously but failed.
Driskell also filed a joint resolution, HJR 77, calling for the commissioner of education to be elected. Driskell has introduced it before, and she said it’s an idea that floats up periodically, but that the pandemic emphasized how much influence the appointed commissioner wields.
“It became clear to me that this position is far too important and far too powerful to not be held accountable to the voters,” Driskell said.