Four developments in the final days of Florida’s 2021 Legislature | Editorial
Some good, and bad, in the mischievous waning hours of the legislative session.
Florida House members work through the legislative session Wednesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Florida House members work through the legislative session Wednesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published April 29, 2021

With only two days left in this year’s legislative session, lawmakers are rushing to pass (or kill) a flurry of bills before the ceremonial drop of the handkerchief Friday. But nothing’s over ‘til it’s over. And even legislation feverishly negotiated still has to go to the governor’s desk. But here’s a snapshot of some good — and bad — developments in the waning hours of this year’s session.

Killing toll roads to nowhere. Two years after ordering more than 300 miles of toll roads across the state, the Legislature has done a 180, voting nearly unanimously to repeal a wasteful idea that had been a priority of Republican leaders. Did legislators come to their senses? A simpler answer is that the plan’s chief supporter in 2019, then-Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton, is no longer in office. Florida taxpayers can breathe a sigh of relief; extending the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border, and the Florida Turnpike to the Suncoast, while building a new corridor between Polk and Collier counties, was a major financial risk and a concept that many locals objected to for the disruption and environmental degradation it would cause. If Gov. Ron DeSantis signs off, the Department of Transportation can redirect its focus and resources to more pressing problems, such as fixing the bottleneck where the turnpike intersects Interstate 75 near Wildwood.

Campus presidents are public officials. Lawmakers retreated from the brink of chipping further away at Florida’s tradition of open government. A measure that would have kept secret the names of those applying to lead Florida’s colleges and universities died Tuesday after failing to muster a required two-thirds support. Under HB 997, only information about the finalists for these posts would have been made public. The bill easily passed the House, but fell one vote short of the 26 needed in the Senate to meet the threshold for a public records exemption. The outcome — should it hold — will keep more public business from being conducted from behind closed doors. But it also shows the Legislature’s depth of indifference to Florida’s once-heralded Sunshine Laws.

More contempt for voters. Florida voters have reacted to the Legislature’s refusal to move on a range of issues — from medical marijuana to preserving more land — by seeking to circumvent the gridlock through the constitutional process. Florida’s Constitution allows citizens to put amendments directly before the voters. Legislators see that democratic tool as an increasing threat, and they are trying to stop these efforts in their infancy. A bill sent to the governor’s desk would impose a $3,000 cap on contributions to any political committee sponsoring or opposing a constitutional amendment proposed by voters. That would hamstring the ability of proponents to finance the expensive signature-gathering operation needed to bring a proposed amendment to the voters. While lawmakers say they are trying to wean the influence of big-money in politics, they (of course) don’t apply the same standard to themselves. Legislators established a loophole allowing them to accept unlimited amounts of campaign cash as long as it is given to their political committees.

After an idea obtains enough signatures to get onto the ballot, the cap disappears and committees can then collect unlimited contributions to help pass the idea. But this bill is intended to keep that from ever happening. Aside from what this says about the Legislature’s hypocrisy and contempt for voters, SB 1890 is also likely unconstitutional under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that likened political contributions to protected speech. That gives Gov. DeSantis, a lawyer, a practical legal reason to do the right thing by vetoing the measure.

Workforce efforts that actually work. In a bipartisan achievement, the Legislature passed strong reforms to overhaul the state’s workforce efforts. Not a single lawmaker in the House or Senate voted against the measures, which would bring tighter controls, sharper focus and more accountability to Florida’s efforts to better align its labor market with its workforce needs. The changes follow a 2018 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times into two local workforce boards — CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay — that chronicled a range of financial and management abuses. The House and Senate bills not only hope to prevent future scandals, but to better route hundreds of millions of federal dollars to job programs every year, helping Florida to meet the evolving demands of a growing state and global economy. DeSantis should sign this one into law.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.