Late Sunday afternoon the Florida legislature officially wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. The session was extended through the weekend due to delays in the budget process resulting from legislative efforts regarding the Parkland shooting, as well as differences during the final week over big ticket funding items.
There were many important issues up for discussion early on, including higher education, K-12 education, texting while driving, gaming, the opioid crisis, “sanctuary cities” in Florida, hurricane response and preparedness, sexual harassment, and growth and development packages, among others. However, ultimately, in terms of policy, the 2018 session was more about what didn’t happen than what did. While some of the issues outlined above were addressed in successful legislation, many were not. In an election year, it is expected that lawmakers will stay away from issues considered too controversial. That, combined with the mid-session shift in focus to school shooting issues, meant numerous comprehensive legislative proposals failed to make final passage. Out of more than 3,000 bills filed, only 200 passed both chambers. Governor Scott is now receiving some of the legislation that was passed, including a public safety measure and comprehensive K-12 education and higher education packages, all of which he has already signed into law.
This session was one of the most unusual in recent memory, starting with the pall cast over the Senate due to sexual harassment claims, which resulted in the resignation of then-Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala from the Senate, and ending with the tragedy of the Parkland massacre, which brought thousands of students and citizens to Tallahassee to push for gun safety regulations. The session began with Governor Scott and legislative leaders – Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran – outlining clear policy and funding priorities. However, these issues took a back seat in the aftermath of the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This tragic event shaped the final few weeks of session, with lawmakers shifting their focus to passing comprehensive legislation relating to school safety, the purchase of firearms in Florida, and mental health services. This also resulted in new budget priorities for the state, with leaders committed to boosting funding for each of these initiatives. Ultimately, members focused the last week of session on passing a comprehensive public safety package through both chambers, which, as previously mentioned, has already been signed into law. In addition, after extending session to Sunday, members passed the largest budget in state history, totaling nearly $89 billion.
Overall, the session was seen as largely successful for leaders. And, in a major election year, politics were certainly at play for each of these leaders, with Governor Scott looking to run against Bill Nelson for his U.S. Senate seat, and Speaker Corcoran all but certain to run for Governor this fall. Both the Governor and Speaker saw success for their education policy and funding priorities, and most of Governor Scott’s recommended tax cuts were supported by the legislature, as well as his priority to provide funding for issues relating to the state’s opioid crisis. As for the overall spending plan, it will now be sent to Governor Scott for his review and action. The Governor has the power of line-item veto over the budget, meaning some of the projects included by lawmakers may ultimately be cut.
The $88.7 billion budget passed by lawmakers this session is the largest in state history. The spending plan is nearly $4 billion larger than the current state budget, and more than $1 billion more than the spending plans recommended by the Governor, Senate President and Speaker.
Lawmakers approved more than $400 million for enhancing school security measures and boosting mental health services as part of the public safety package passed this session. Prior to the Parkland shooting, each chamber had already worked through and outlined many budget priorities. However, the commitment of members to support funding to address issues surrounding the shooting meant several large sections of the budget, including K-12 and higher education, as well as health care, were unresolved until the final days of session. Reports indicated that the roadblock in negotiations surrounded health care and hospital funding. However, many also reported that legislative leaders deliberately held up budget discussions until the public safety bills addressing shooting issues were passed. There were also reports that members who did not support the measures saw funding for their district projects pulled from the final budget plan.
The K-12 education budget totals more than $21 billion – with increased education spending outlined as priorities of both Governor Scott and Speaker Corcoran. More than $100 million will be from local property tax funds. In addition, the state’s Bright Futures scholarship program was permanently expanded – a priority of Senate President Joe Negron. The spending plan also includes $170 million in tax cuts agreed upon by lawmakers – the smallest cuts passed by state lawmakers in recent years. In addition, members provided more than $50 million for efforts to combat the state’s opioid crisis – a funding priority of Governor Scott. The health care budget also factors in around $318 in Medicaid Enhancement funds – a sticking point between the two chambers during budget negotiations. The funds are for 28 hospitals throughout the state, and the differences between the two chambers surrounded how those funds should be allocated. In addition to enhancement funds, members also had to iron out differences relating to other federal funding for hospitals, as well as extra funding for nursing homes.
For economic development spending – a controversial topic in recent years – lawmakers maintained funding for Visit Florida at $76 million. In addition, land and conservation spending was heavily discussed and debated throughout the session and was a priority of President Negron. Ultimately, Florida Forever, the state’s land-buying program, received $100 million in the budget, and lawmakers allocated $25 million for Keystone Heights lake region projects in Northeast Florida, where Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley is from. Members also provided just over $11 million for beach erosion projects resulting from hurricane damage. However, the area of environmental funding was certainly impacted by the Parkland discussion, with only a small amount of funding allocated for individual water projects throughout the state. Members allocated around $30 million for these projects, compared to more than $55 million in the budget passed by lawmakers last year.
Public Safety and Firearms
In the wake of one of the worst school shootings in the nation’s history, lawmakers immediately shifted their focus to safety issues for students. Their efforts centered around three key topics – school safety and security measures, background checks and requirements for purchasing firearms, and mental health services and programs. The issues were not without controversy, with many calling for lawmakers to ban assault rifles in the wake of the shooting, and public opinion split on lawmakers’ plans to arm certain school staff as a protection measure. There was much discussion and debate and emotional public testimony on this legislation. In addition, as previously mentioned, reports indicated lawmakers held up budget discussions to ensure member votes on the measure, and pulled funding for projects sponsored by members who did not support the proposal.
Ultimately, the comprehensive legislative package agreed upon by both chambers provides new requirements when purchasing firearms, includes language to stop people suffering mental health issues from purchasing firearms, and includes a number of school safety and school “hardening” measures for keeping students safe going forward. The new requirements for purchasing firearms include a three-day waiting period, and a minimum age requirement of 21 years old. This language also allows school districts to opt into a program to provide firearm and safety training to school employees. Governor Scott signed the bill into law on Friday. The budget passed by lawmakers includes $400 million for implementing these new measures.
At this point, this issue looks like it will remain a complex, ongoing matter for the state. After Governor Scott signed the public safety legislation into law on Friday, the National Rifle Association (NRA) sued the state as a result of the new requirements for purchasing firearms. In addition, the state Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years, is currently considering placing an amendment on the November ballot allowing Florida voters to decide if assault weapons should be completely banned.
Florida’s education system was again one of the biggest issues discussed and debated during session. Speaker Corcoran has made K-12 education one of his legacy issues throughout his tenure as House leader. In addition, President Negron highlighted higher education funding as one of his key priorities this session. Ultimately, there were two comprehensive education packages passed – one relating to K-12 education, and the other relating to higher education.
On the K-12 side, Speaker Corcoran supported an omnibus education bill which was compared to his education reform bill passed last year. Certain provisions of the bill were fairly controversial early in session, tying $8 billion in funding to passage of the measure, which called for a scholarship program, known as the Hope Scholarship, to provide funds for bullied children to attend other schools. While the language requiring passage for funding was removed, what passed is a comprehensive package providing $41 million for the Hope Scholarship Program. The legislation, however, is still not without controversy, as many consider it to be another private school voucher bill. The legislation also includes controversial language relating to teachers unions, calling for possible re-certification if local teachers union membership falls below 50 percent. This proposal hurts the unions and was opposed by the Florida Education Association.
On the higher education side, the measure passed by lawmakers expands the Bright Futures scholarship program to 100% of tuition for high-achieving students, with the Medallion Scholarship covering 75 percent of tuition. In addition, members changed performance metrics at universities in order to help students graduate on time. There is also controversial language in the higher education measure, which removes the independent accreditation of two University of South Florida (“USF”) Schools, located in Sarasota-Manatee and St. Petersburg, and merges all USF locations into one system.
There was also Senate legislation filed this session to overhaul the state college system, but it was never taken up on the Senate floor.
Health care has been a contentious issue among Florida lawmakers for several years, with differences between the two chambers surrounding topics ranging from the Medicaid program to state funding for hospitals. Last year the hospital funding issue became so contentious that it resulted in a special session to resolve differences in the state budget. This year, hospital funding again became a sticking point for lawmakers in the budget negotiation process. The issue surrounded Medicaid inpatient “enhancement” funds, and ideological differences between the two chambers on the issue. There was roughly $318 million in funds for the legislature to decide how to distribute to hospitals. The Senate wanted to divide the funds based on each hospital’s Medicaid base rate, which would have negatively impacted the state’s safety net hospitals. The House, however, wanted to distribute the funds to hospitals whose patient services include at least 25 percent in Medicaid care. Ultimately, the House prevailed.
Lawmakers also placed key focus this year on working to combat the state’s opioid crisis – an issue plaguing states across the nation. Governor Scott made this a key priority this year, proposing $50 million in funding for programs going into session and supporting legislation to implement new, strict policies on opioid prescriptions. This was also outlined as a priority by Senate lawmakers as session began. Ultimately, members agreed on a nearly $54 million package that limits opioid prescriptions to three days, and would enhance the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program and require physicians to consult the database before writing opioid prescriptions. The legislation will now be sent to Governor Scott.
This session lawmakers also considered a number of other legislative proposals relating to health care. Among the proposals considered were bills to repeal the certificate of need process, which regulates the building of hospitals in Florida, and a measure providing authorization for certain health care services to be provided via telehealth. While both bills moved through the legislative process, neither made it through final passage. Members did, however, approve legislation relating to direct primary care, which will allow patients to make direct agreements with their doctors for care, as well as trauma services legislation, which redesigns the state’s trauma system.
Hurricane Response and Preparedness
Following the devastation of powerful Hurricane Irma last fall, Speaker Corcoran appointed a team of House members from across the state to serve on a Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness, to discuss and determine the best ways for the state to respond to current and future storm issues. Through the Committee’s efforts, members narrowed down specific issues to address this session, including power supply at assisted living facilities, availability and accessibility of fuel in times of emergency, and the strength and efficiency of the state’s electric grid, among other matters. While the sense of urgency was somewhat diminished due to new and different session priorities forming over time, members did pass legislation requiring that nursing homes have generators in case of hurricanes or other emergencies. The measure will now be sent to Governor Scott for his approval.
Members also considered comprehensive emergency management legislation crafted by the House this session, which placed key focus on fuel availability and delivery during major emergencies. However, the measure failed to pass through the legislative process.
On the budget side, members allocated over $11 million for beach and dune repair and restoration projects in response to damages caused by Hurricane Irma.
Economic Development, Taxes and Incentives
Economic development and job creation have been the top priorities of Governor Scott during his time leading the state. While the issue was once a source of major contention between the Governor and House leaders, the two sides have come to terms, with the legislature providing funding this year for the Governor’s infrastructure fund at $85 million, as well as $76 million for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion agency.
Members also passed a slimmed down tax package this session based on recommendations from the Governor and legislation crafted in the House. The measure focuses on sales tax holidays and tax cuts for hurricane-related supplies. The tax package totals around $170 million and nearly meets Governor Scott’s request for $180 million in cuts and incentives. Under the measure, the state will enjoy three back-to-school sales tax holidays, as well as a seven-day disaster preparedness tax holiday window.
In addition, members passed a measure this session to place a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot requiring a two-thirds vote of each chamber in the legislature to increase state taxes or fees. Also considered was legislation relating to tourist development taxes, otherwise known as “bed taxes.” The proposals would have expanded those taxes to include infrastructure projects that benefit tourism, but both the House and Senate bills died in the legislative committee process.
Transportation and Infrastructure
Each year lawmakers consider comprehensive transportation packages during session. The bills, often known as legislative “trains,” are usually heavily amended throughout session and often die without final hearing or consideration due to the amount of language added throughout the process. This year was no exception, with members amending a transportation package filed in the House throughout the final week of session. The legislation had numerous provisions relating to vehicle tag requirements, registration requirements, truck platooning, and license plates, among a number of other issues. With several other bills being debated throughout the waning hours of session, the transportation package was not taken up for final passage.
There were also a number of other bills relating to transportation innovation and infrastructure this session. Members in both chambers were focused early in session on the issue of autonomous vehicles, with legislation filed in both chambers to authorize vehicles with this technology in Florida. However, these bills failed to make it through the legislative committee process.
In addition, later in session, House and Senate members considered legislation to create a statewide alternative transportation authority to develop alternative transportation systems and programs to relieve traffic congestion issues in the state. This legislation also failed to make it through the session process.
Environment, Land Use and Development
Environment and water issues have been some of the most discussed and debated in recent years, and this year was no different. Lawmakers, particularly Senate members, placed a key focus this session on securing funding for the state’s land buying and water programs, with Senate leaders expressing that maintaining and preserving land in Florida is a “responsibility” of the legislature. Ultimately, Senate members prevailed on funding, securing $100 million for the Florida Forever program and $50 million for beach projects statewide, as well as other funding allocations for various waterway projects.
On the policy end, lawmakers passed a comprehensive environmental regulation and permitting bill. The legislation includes numerous issues and provisions relating to Florida’s water and sewage treatment policies, as well as Florida’s wetland policies. The final bill also includes language pertaining to Lake Okeechobee – a key issue during the 2017 session – and authorizes use of the C-51 Reservoir to divert discharges from the Lake.
Members also considered legislation this session relating to coastal management in Florida, which would have made significant changes to how the state deals with beach erosion and nourishment issues, would have made the $50 million allocation for beach projects permanent, and would have provided for a three-year beach management plan. The legislation, however, failed to make it through the session process.
On the development end, legislation relating to community redevelopment agencies (CRA) moved through both chambers during the final week of session but failed to secure final passage. The comprehensive language would have limited CRAs in Florida. However, the legislation was heavily amended throughout the final days of session and ultimately was not taken up for final hearing. Members did, however, pass legislation relating to developments of regional impact (DRI) and eliminating state review of the current DRI process.
The topic of potentially expanding gaming in Florida has been debated by lawmakers for the past several years. Measures for gambling expansion in the state, particularly in South Florida, have been strongly backed by Vegas-style casinos, but have ultimately failed to pass through the legislative process. Another factor in Florida’s gambling equation is the state’s gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
This year, while gaming was a hotly discussed and debated issue from the start of session to the very finish, members were again unable to pass a comprehensive gaming measure. While this year’s legislation was more limited than in previous years, gaming bills are always complex and uncertain. The proposals looked to ratify a new compact between the Seminole Tribe and the state. However, agreement between the two chambers about pari-mutuels and the number of allowed new slot machine licenses could not be reached, and the session ended again without successful gambling legislation.
In addition to the legislation considered, a powerful coalition of anti-gambling groups worked hard over the past few months to push a petition to place an anti-gambling amendment on the 2018 ballot. The amendment will be considered by Florida voters later this year.
At this time, the Governor has received a total of only 38 bills, with six signed into law and 32 waiting for action. Legislative staff is currently working to finalize numerous other bills to send to the Governor’s office. Once the Governor receives a bill, he has 15 days to act – either sign the bill into law, veto it, or let it become law without his action. The Governor has the same time limit for the comprehensive state budget passed by lawmakers, which at this time is still being finalized by staff. With the budget, however, the Governor has line item veto power.
Once all bills have been acted on, much of the focus will shift to the upcoming elections later this year. This will be a big year for many current state lawmakers, as numerous officials are working for reelection to their current seats or positions, or running for higher or other office. It will be interesting to see how the gun legislation and Trump Effect, if any, impacts the elections.