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7 things to watch in the last 2 weeks of Florida’s legislative session

Still to be settled: the budget, congressional redistricting, a voting bill and more.
People view the atrium between the House and Senate chambers while taking a guided tour of the Florida state Capitol building in Tallahassee the during legislative session on Jan. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
People view the atrium between the House and Senate chambers while taking a guided tour of the Florida state Capitol building in Tallahassee the during legislative session on Jan. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Feb. 28|Updated Feb. 28

TALLAHASSEE — There are two weeks left in the annual 60-day legislative session and lawmakers have only two bills they are required to pass before adjourning March 11: A budget and a congressional redistricting map.

But it’s an election year and there is a lineup of other issues they have teed up, many of them aimed at energizing GOP voters over culture issues, or passing legislation sought by high-profile political donors. They all could affect life in Florida.

Here are seven things to watch:

A record budget, $200 million school masking penalty

The Senate budget proposal spends a record $108.6 billion, while the House proposal totals nearly $105.3 billion.

One of the most significant differences is a House plan, supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis, that withholds $200 million from a dozen school districts — including Miami-Dade, Broward Palm Beach, Orange and Hillsborough counties — in an attempt to penalize them for supporting mask mandates in defiance of the governor.

Related: Is Ron DeSantis getting what he wants in Florida's early budget talks?

Clean water advocates get closer

As part of the budget negotiations, the Senate used a budget maneuver to make a significant change in water policy.

After an outcry from water advocates, the Senate removed provisions from Senate Bill 2508 that advocates say would have given the sugar industry an advantage in water access and caused toxic discharges and algae blooms. But water advocates remain opposed to a provision that gives the sugar industry preference over homeowners when accessing water in times of drought.

The measure also creates a second rural land-buying program in the Department of Agriculture and changes wetlands permitting, including allowing the state’s utilities to pay to get expedited environmental permits. The House has no similar provision.

Related: Florida Senate reverses plan to give sugar industry water advantage

Reducing required staffing at nursing homes

Both the House and the Senate are poised to pass a permanent reduction in the staffing standards at Florida nursing homes. The measure would reduce the minimum number of hours certified nursing assistants are required to spend caring for each nursing home resident by half an hour, to two hours daily. It is opposed by AARP, which warns it will lead to inadequate care.

Related: A bill would make it easier to sue Florida nursing homes. Elder advocates oppose it.

Congressional districts favoring Black voters at stake

Under pressure from the governor to dismantle a North Florida congressional district designed to elect a Black representative to Congress, the Florida House is advancing two maps, including one that creates a Duval-centric district but diminishes Black voting strength in North Florida. The second map is similar to one that passed the state Senate but favors Republicans by splitting Black voters in Orlando.

If the Senate agrees, and the governor lets it become law, the court will decide. If the court invalidates the first map, the idea is that the second map will take effect in law.

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Related: Amid DeSantis push, Florida House releases redistricting map — and a backup plan

“Don’t say gay” bill moving forward

The Florida House passed a bill last week to ban classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3, or in ways that are not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for kids in other grades. The bill gives parents an opportunity to sue if they think this provision has been violated. The measure passed over the objections of seven House Republicans and nearly all Democrats.

It’s now up to the Senate. Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg tried and failed to amend the bill Monday to make it prohibit the discussion of sexual education in grade levels where it’s not age or developmentally appropriate — an effort he hoped would keep the bill from singling out LGBTQ Floridians.

Related: ‘Don’t say gay’: Senate panel rejects Republican’s attempt to tone down bill

Voting fraud investigators

The creation of an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State to investigate violations of the elections code and associated rules is ready for a vote in both the House and Senate.

Opponents of the bill, including voting rights groups, say it creates unnecessary hurdles for voters. It increases penalties for people who violate vote-by-mail laws, requires supervisors to do annual maintenance of the voter rolls and changes voter registration laws.

Home solar power

A bill to slash financial incentives for rooftop solar installation would phase in the change over four years but, if solar grows fast in Florida, would also give utilities a chance to recover lost revenue by raising rates for everyone else.

The utility industry contributed $3.2 million to political campaigns this election cycle, including significant amounts to Democrats, and the bill written by Florida Power & Light has earned Democratic support in both chambers.

Related: Rooftop solar industry balks at Florida House's new plan

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Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage

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Watch the Florida Legislature live: The Florida Channel, a public affairs programming service funded by the Legislature, livestreams coverage at thefloridachannel.org. Its video library also archives coverage for later viewing.

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