The Fiorentino Group UNF President John Delany InterviewFlorida lawmakers convened in Tallahassee today to kick off the 2019 legislative session. The official start followed months of preparation, with lawmakers periodically holding interim legislative committee meetings since last December to discuss and debate various policy and funding matters on tap for session.

After a typical Florida election last November, complete with recounts, candidate concessions, withdrawal of those concessions, and the removal of an elections official from office, Florida’s newly-elected, reelected and sitting legislators will work together through the 60-day session with a new Governor, Agriculture Commissioner, and Attorney General. Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is also relatively new to his position, but had been appointed prior to the general election last year. In addition, both the Senate and House are under new leadership, with President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) and Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Hialeah) officially sworn into their positions late last year.

During his inaugural remarks in January, Florida’s new Governor Ron DeSantis expressed a desire to give more power to the legislature. This is a significant shift from previous Governor Rick Scott, who was often at odds with legislators, even though both chambers were led by members of his own party. Governor DeSantis has committed to making education and environmental issues his priorities during session, with a key focus on overhauling the state’s preK-12 education system, as well as passing measures relating to red tide and algae bloom issues. He also plans to address medical marijuana matters, looking to make medical marijuana more accessible for patients.

In the Senate, President Bill Galvano is seen as a moderate Republican, and is focused on expanding transportation projects in rural areas of the state. He is a fair, thoughtful leader who gives careful consideration to some of the most significant issues impacting Florida. On the House side, Speaker Oliva, a gifted orator and steadfast conservative, has placed some of the state’s biggest programs and institutions – health care facilities, higher education systems, and economic development programs and incentives – directly in his cross hairs. He is planning extensive reforms for each of these this session.

While pre-session efforts have been fairly collaborative between the legislative and executive branches, with Governor DeSantis even receiving praise and support from Democrats on his proposed spending plan, differing priorities will most likely bring some contention between officials over the next 60 days. However, the only issue members are constitutionally required to address during session is the budget, with legislators required to pass a balanced state budget each year. Any other items addressed or passed will be at the discretion of state leaders and will be the result of lengthy discussions and negotiations between the two chambers of the legislature, as well as between the legislature and the executive branch.


State Budget

With parts of Florida still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Michael last year, and the effects of 2017’s Hurricane Irma still being felt statewide, hurricane recovery funding is certain to play a large role in budget discussions this session. The state has already spent more than $1 billion on recovery efforts after Hurricane Michael, and Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) has indicated that costs in the 2019-2020 budget could total around $2.7 billion.

Last month, Governor DeSantis released his proposed spending plan to lawmakers, totaling a record $91.3 billion. The proposal includes nearly $2 billion for storm recovery efforts and places key focus on environmental programs, with $50 million for springs protection, $360 million for Everglades restoration, $100 million for Florida Forever – the state’s land buying program – and $25 million to address algae and red tide blooms which have impacted numerous areas of the state. In addition to environment and water issues, the Governor is making preK-12 education a key priority, proposing a three percent increase in per-student funding, as well as $50 million for school safety and $10 million for mental health programs in response to last year’s tragic school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida. For transportation and infrastructure spending, Governor DeSantis is proposing nearly $10 billion for the state’s transportation work program, including more than $700 million in bonding – a move supported in the Senate, with President Galvano committed to boosting rural transportation projects.

The Governor’s spending plan, which is $2.6 billion more than the current state budget, will likely be scaled down by lawmakers during session, as Florida’s conservative legislative leaders are committed to passing a tight budget for the coming year. In the House, indications are that budget leaders may make cuts in the areas of health care, particularly hospital funding – a target of Speaker Oliva – as well as higher education spending, which will be under the microscope this session, with the University of Central Florida recently found to have misused $40 million in funding for construction projects.


Medical Marijuana

In 2016, more than 70 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana in Florida. Following the passage of the landmark amendment, state lawmakers worked to determine the best method for implementing the new law. Ultimately, members passed a bill in a special session in 2017 to establish a framework for growers, prescribers and patients, and included language banning the smoking of medical marijuana, instead allowing patients to use other forms of the medicine.

This year, medical marijuana is again a key topic of discussion for lawmakers. The matter has already been debated extensively in response to Governor DeSantis calling for an updated law allowing for smoking medical marijuana to be passed by mid-March. Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) is leading the charge in the Senate, with measures currently moving through both chambers. In addition to the smoking issue, there are numerous reports of questionable prescribing practices in Florida, as well as heavy criticism of the Florida Department of Health for not monitoring the process and failing to investigate allegations against physicians and organizations providing prescriptions to patients. With a federal ban on medical marijuana still in place, the matter remains complicated at best. Members will continue their efforts to pass smoking language in the coming weeks.


Health Care

Health care will be one of the biggest issues debated this session and is a major priority of House Speaker Oliva, who plans to implement significant changes to remedy what he calls the “health care industrial complex” in Florida. During his opening remarks to the legislature this morning, Oliva labeled health care a “five alarm fire.” His plan for reform includes repealing and overhauling the state’s certificate of need process, which is used to regulate the expansion of health care facilities. He is also a big proponent of teleheath, as well as expanding the services of nurse practitioners and bringing more transparency to health care pricing for patients. In addition, legislators will also consider a measure to expand the services offered by ambulatory surgical centers this session. With health care costs taking up nearly half of the entire state budget, many lawmakers are seeking ways to trim health care spending, and Speaker Oliva is leading the charge.

Governor DeSantis is also a strong supporter of health care reform and advocates policies to make services more affordable for patients. The Governor is promoting legislation filed in both chambers to create a shared savings program, allowing patients to research the prices and details about procedures up front in the health care process, and providing for financial incentives for patients to shop for lower-priced services. He announced today that he has asked the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) to expedite the website its currently developing to track health care pricing in Florida. He also recently announced a controversial plan to import prescription drugs from Canada – a move criticized by President Galvano, who argues that the state is intruding on an issue controlled by the federal government. Galvano is instead supporting legislation filed in both chambers to increase options for patients to research and shop the lowest prices for prescription drugs.

Florida’s opioid epidemic will also remain a key issue for lawmakers this session. In addition to numerous bills filed addressing various opioid matters, Attorney General Ashley Moody is focused on the issue, and recently released a number of recommendations. These include allowing civilian law enforcement to administer opioid antagonist drugs like Narcan, increasing criminal penalties against drug dealers, and providing more options and services for opioid addicts in Florida.

There will also be other numerous legislative proposals related to health care this session. Among these are a measure filed by Senator Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) to continue a cost-saving measure passed by lawmakers last year. The bill restricts the amount of time patients are eligible for Medicaid coverage prior to submitting an application for the coverage. Previously, state law allowed for a period of three months. Last year, lawmakers shortened the window to one month but the move, which would free up more than $100 million in funds, has to be re-approved this session. In addition, legislation filed by Senator Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) would require health insurance companies to offer at least one plan to accept patients with pre-existing conditions.


Education

Governor DeSantis has called for significant reforms to the state’s preK-12 education system this session, including expanding school choice, overhauling teacher bonuses and offering enhanced scholarship programs for Florida students, including vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools. The Governor’s preK-12 plans are supported by House leaders, with Speaker Oliva also a strong proponent of school choice.

The Governor’s proposed overhaul of the teacher bonus program, known as “Best and Brightest,” would increase bonus amounts for recipients, but would eliminate tying bonuses to teacher scores on college entrance exams. Under the proposal, the bonuses would instead be awarded to teachers at schools with improved grades who also score “highly effective” on their classroom evaluations. In addition, members will consider legislation this session to expand the Hope Scholarship Program, which was created two years ago to provide funds for students who are victims of bullying to attend other schools. This year, a measure sponsored by Senator Manny Diaz (R-Hialeah) would change requirements regarding reporting bullying incidents, allowing parents to report incidents to Hope Scholarship officials rather than school principals, and expand the program to allow bullied students to attend private schools.

Higher education matters will also be front and center this session – primarily issues relating to funding for Florida’s colleges and universities. Given the recent scandal at UCF relating to the misuse of millions of taxpayer dollars, Florida’s higher education institutions will be under heavy scrutiny this session – particularly in the House. Speaker Oliva has outlined plans for higher education reform, including changes to funding formulas with emphasis on performance funding, and regulating funding for college and university construction projects, including a possible requirement that schools provide a down payment for projects.

The House has also released a committee bill addressing issues relating to the state’s higher education institutions. The measure would place requirements on how universities run direct-support organizations and require that the information be made public. Legislative leaders would also be given the power to call for investigations of suspected financial mismanagement by state universities.


School Security

Last February, Floridians were left reeling from one of the worst school shootings in the nation’s history. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland became the key focus of state lawmakers during the last half of the 2018 legislative session. Efforts centered around three key topics – school safety and security measures, background checks and requirements for purchasing firearms, and mental health services and programs.

Last session, lawmakers passed language including a number of school safety and school “hardening” measures for keeping students safe, as well as a provision allowing school districts to opt into a program to provide firearm and safety training to school employees. This year, members will consider revisions to the measures passed last year, and will factor in recommendations from a commission created by the state in the wake of the tragedy. One of the most controversial topics lawmakers will consider is the potential expansion of the law allowing some teachers to carry guns in schools. Current law allows only teachers who also have roles outside of the classroom. This year’s proposal would expand the program to allow all teachers to go through the training. This measure is supported by Governor DeSantis and Republican leaders, and was a recommendation outlined by the Parkland Commission.

In addition, this session members will consider legislation to compensate Parkland victims and their families. The bills, filed by Senator Lauren Book (D-Plantation), would create programs to provide around $160 million for victims of the shooting and their families.


Environment and Water Issues

Environment and water issues have been some of the most discussed and debated in recent years, particularly measures to address numerous issues around Lake Okeechobee. This year, Florida’s southwestern and panhandle regions are dealing with the most severe red tide bloom in more than a decade. The issue is also impacting more than 100 miles of the state’s Atlantic coastline. During session, lawmakers will focus on methods to remedy these problems and offer much-needed relief in the impacted areas of the state. This is a top priority of Governor DeSantis, who made environmental issues a key topic of his campaign, and wants to allocate more than $600 million to various water and land use programs this session. The Governor has committed to providing a total of $2.5 billion in environmental spending over four years. Senate and House leaders are also committed to resolving Florida’s water problems. Today Speaker Oliva expressed a commitment to “supporting the Governor and funding his priorities as he leads in the protection of our natural resources.” Whether or not the Senate will meet the Governor’s environmental funding request is yet to be determined, with President Galvano committed to addressing the state’s water problems, but also focused on providing necessary hurricane relief funds and boosting state transportation and infrastructure projects.


Energy

The key topic relating to energy this year will most certainly be a proposed constitutional amendment to deregulate the state’s energy market. The controversial measure, which could be placed on the 2020 ballot, would essentially blow up the state’s current energy market by limiting investor-owned utilities to construction, operation and repairs of transmission systems, and giving customers the ability to choose their energy provider. Proponents highlight the potential for significant savings for taxpayers under a more competitive market, while opponents argue the move would bring chaos to current systems, and cause a significant decline in the level of service, quality and reliability of Florida’s current energy systems. Opposition to the measure is strong, with Attorney General Ashley Moody asking the Florida Supreme Court to keep the proposed amendment off the ballot.

This session, lawmakers will again consider legislation relating to gas hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in Florida. This topic has been considered and debated by lawmakers for years, with numerous bills to ban the practice in the state. However, this year’s legislation to ban fracking is already surrounded by controversy and is opposed on both sides, with some of the state’s largest environmental groups as well as oil industry representatives in opposition to the measure. Environmentalists argue the language would alter the definition of fracking to allow the extraction of gas and oil in Florida. The oil industry opposes any sort of ban. Today Speaker Oliva announced his support for a study on different forms of fracking. He has also expressed support for a ban on fracking, but to what extent is yet to be determined.


Transportation, Infrastructure and Development

Transportation will be a key issue for lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, with President Galvano making rural transportation projects one of his biggest priorities this session. The Senate President is calling for $75 million to cover three expansive highway projects in rural areas of the state, looking to make the projects “multi-purpose corridors,” in an effort to boost economic development as well as provide an additional hurricane evacuation option for Floridians. This measure will likely be heavily amended and debated between the two chambers this session, with passage likely coming down to budget negotiations between the President and Speaker.

Also this session a group of transportation stakeholders are pushing for changes to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), particularly regarding the transportation secretary as well as the organization of the agency. The Florida Transportation Builders Association is calling for tighter requirements for the secretary position, including that the secretary be a registered engineer, hold an advanced degree in an appropriate field, or have a minimum of 10 years of experience in the transportation industry. This language was also introduced in last year’s transportation package. The group is also proposing language to boost the powers of the FDOT central office in Tallahassee, removing certain powers from the seven regional offices located throughout the state.

In addition, in recent budget discussions, Senate transportation budget leader Travis Hutson (R-Palm Coast) called for increased funding for shovel-ready road construction projects throughout the state in an effort to boost economic development.


Election Reform

Florida’s chaotic 2018 general election highlighted a number of problems that lawmakers will work to address this session through election reform legislation. There are currently several bills filed, including proposals to move the 2020 primary election day up by one week, outline a process for notifying voters when their mailed and provisional ballots are rejected due to mismatched signatures, and provide a set amount of time for voters to remedy the issue. The measure would also expand the time for voters to receive, complete and submit their mail-in ballots.

Another measure filed by Senate Democrats would require elections supervisors to apply the same rules currently in place for overseas ballots to domestic mail ballots. This means domestic ballots would be accepted and counted for up to 10 days following the election, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Yet another measure will extend current state recount deadlines and provide stricter requirements for county voting machines. These measures will likely be heavily amended and debated throughout session.


Going Forward

There is much to be decided and much at stake in the legislature in the coming months, with critical state policy and funding issues up for discussion. Already, members have filed more than 3,000 bills. Of these, only around 200 bills will pass completely through the legislative process by the time session wraps up.

In the coming weeks, lawmakers will continue to hear various policy proposals relating to a wide array of topics affecting the state. In addition, appropriations subcommittees will continue to meet and craft their individual budgets, each of which will make up sections of the overall budget plans approved by the House and Senate. Once those plans are passed, the two chambers will go into budget conference, where negotiations are made over differences between the two spending plans. Once a comprehensive budget is agreed upon and passed by both chambers, it will be sent to the Governor for his consideration. The budget conference process typically happens during the last two weeks of session.

The 60-day session is scheduled to wrap up on Friday, May 3rd.