State lawmakers convened in Tallahassee last month to kick off the 2018 Florida legislative session. Members have worked in recent weeks to address numerous issues relating to various state policy and appropriations matters. This week marked the midpoint of the 60-day process, with four weeks remaining for members to discuss, debate and vote on a number of policy proposals, as well as finalize and pass a state budget for the coming year.
At this point, many issues remain in flux, with a number of topics still being discussed and debated. However, the main focus for members at the moment is the state budget. This week, both the House and Senate officially passed their budget proposals through their respective chambers, with the Senate bill (SB 2500) becoming the main budget vehicle from here. The next step will be budget conference, which will begin once presiding officers agree on final allocations for each area of the budget. It is not yet clear exactly when, but members could be in conference as early as next week or next weekend.
Overall, the first half of session has gone relatively smoothly, with the Governor, House and Senate working together on a number of key issues and avoiding early squabbles on budget and policy matters. So far Governor DeSantis’ popularity seems to be as strong with the legislature as it is with the public. Last month he achieved one of his goals for session when he signed legislation allowing for smoking medical marijuana into law. He had given legislators a deadline of March 15 to repeal the smoking ban, which was passed by lawmakers during the 2017 session after voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in Florida. In the Senate, President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) continues pushing his priority for increased education spending, as well as his plan to expand transportation projects in rural areas of the state. House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Hialeah) is also seeing a number of his priorities move through the legislative process, with numerous health care reform measures being considered over the past several weeks. With the session at the mid-way point, it will be interesting to see how closely they continue to work together on issues that may become contentious.
The peaceful atmosphere did see a slight disruption this week when members were working to pass their chamber budgets. The issue surrounded budget conforming bills, which amend state statutes to comply with measures outlined in appropriations bills. The Senate, under the leadership of President Galvano, is committed this session to keeping policy and budget matters completely separate. As a result, the Senate requested that the House hold up the final vote on several conforming bills this week and, in order to keep budget talks and negotiations moving forward, the House agreed. Going forward, with conference looming and numerous legislative proposals still up for debate, particularly measures relating to health care and education policy and funding, the second half of session could be much more eventful than the first.
Provided below is a summary of some of the key issues and priorities currently being discussed and debated. Members are hard at work on these matters, and issues continue to evolve at a very fast pace.
In February, Governor DeSantis released his proposed spending plan to lawmakers, totaling a record $91.3 billion and providing increased funding for environmental programs, K-12 schools, and storm recovery efforts for parts of the state still dealing with significant damage from Hurricane Matthew. With the Governor’s proposal totaling $2.6 billion more than the current state budget, it was anticipated that lawmakers would pass more scaled down plans, and both the House and Senate have proposed less spending than the Governor’s recommendations. At this time, the two chambers are around $400 million apart in their spending plans.
The Senate’s $90.3 billion budget passed through the upper chamber unanimously this week. President Galvano referred to this year as one of the more difficult budget years he’s experienced. One big issue lawmakers are facing is the hurricane recovery effort in the Panhandle, which is costing the state around $2 billion. On the House side, members passed a more trimmed down budget, with House lawmakers approving an $89.9 billion plan by a vote of 105-8 this week. The Senate dedicates more funding to nearly every area of the budget than the House. At this time, key differences between the two chambers surround K-12 spending, with the Senate proposing a record $1 billion increase in per-student spending, and the House proposing around $500 million less. The chambers also differ on economic development spending, with the Senate providing full funding for Visit Florida, the state’s economic development organization, and the House only providing enough funding for the organization to operate through its expiration date later this year. Another key difference, which could end up being a big fight between the two chambers, is health care funding – an issue that’s been a major source of contention between the two chambers for several years. This session the issue surrounds $319 million in extra Medicaid funding. The House wants to distribute the funds to hospitals that provide the most charity care to uninsured patients, as has been done in recent years. The Senate is looking to distribute the money evenly to all hospitals. This will be a key issue as lawmakers head into budget conference in the coming weeks. Last year, the Senate conceded to the House on the distribution of extra Medicaid funds in return for a funding boost for nursing homes. However, this year, the nursing home dollars are not included in the Senate budget plan.
There are still a number of issues bringing uncertainty to the budget process. President Galvano’s transportation priority may become a bargaining chip during budget conference. The House’s push to repeal the state’s Certificate of Need laws, which regulate the expansion of health care facilities in Florida, may also play a key role in budget negotiations. And finally, the state remains in talks with the Seminole Tribe of Florida regarding the state’s gambling compact with the tribe. If negotiations fail, it could mean a loss of around $350 million in revenues to the state. Once members pass the budget – the only action they are constitutionally required to complete during session – it will be sent to the Governor for his select veto actions and overall approval of the spending plan.
Health care has been one of the biggest issues debated this session and is a major priority of House Speaker Oliva, who aims to implement significant changes to remedy what he calls the “health care industrial complex” in Florida. Speaker Oliva’s plans for reform include repealing and overhauling the state’s Certificate of Need process, which the House approved last month, as well as expanding telehealth and the services of nurse practitioners, and bringing more transparency to health care pricing for patients. In addition, legislators are considering several measures to expand the services offered by ambulatory surgical centers.
At this time, Certificate of Need remains a big issue for lawmakers this session. With the House pushing for a full repeal of the program, Senate leaders expressed opposition to the measure early in session. However, late last month, Senate health leaders indicated their opposition may be wavering, with Senate Health Budget Chair Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach) announcing plans to reconsider. Presently, the Senate is moving the measure through the committee process, with the House language included in the bill. Going forward, the two chambers will have to negotiate potentially exempting hospices and nursing homes from the repeal, and applying the changes only to Florida hospitals.
Another major health care issue being addressed by lawmakers this session would allow for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada – a key priority of Governor DeSantis, who aims to combat the rising prices of prescription medications for Floridians. The House has already passed its proposal. The Senate version is currently moving through the legislative committee process.
Florida’s opioid epidemic also remains a key issue for lawmakers, with numerous bills being considered regarding opioids and prescribing the medicines to patients. Governor DeSantis has called for the reestablishment of the Florida Office of Drug Control, which would be under the leadership of a Drug Czar, to manage the state’s response to the crisis. In addition, both the Governor and Attorney General Ashley Moody are pushing for a statewide opioid task force. This effort is included in Senate legislation sponsored by Senator Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby).
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.
Medical marijuana has again been a key topic of discussion for lawmakers this year and is the subject of the first bill signed into law by Governor DeSantis in his role leading the state. The legislation repeals the ban on smoking medical marijuana, making it more accessible for patients throughout the state.
Members are also considering measures relating to a hemp program in Florida, which would be under the oversight of the Florida Department of Agriculture. The proposals at this time work to establish a framework for regulating hemp, which was legalized at the federal level last year. Hemp can be harvested for the production of cannabidiol, a product used in supplements and other dietary and wellness items.
Also on the medical marijuana front this session, there is a push among House lawmakers to pass legislation to establish a limit on the level of THC allowed in medical cannabis products in the state. The measure, which would prompt the Florida Department of Health to establish oversight of medical cannabis in Florida, would also limit the supply of edible cannabis products for patients and increase regulations of daily dosages. There is currently no similar measure in the Senate.
This session lawmakers will address several large proposals relating to K-12 education and higher education in Florida. Reforming the state’s K-12 education system is a big priority of Governor DeSantis and Speaker Oliva, who are looking to expand school choice and offer enhanced scholarship programs for Florida’s students, including vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools.
The Senate and House differ on funding for K-12 schools, which will likely make education one of the most debated and contested issues during session, second only to health care. The Senate is looking to provide a record boost in funding for the state’s public schools. The $1.1 billion increase proposed by the Senate would be the largest increase since 2006. In addition to increasing per-student spending, the Senate is looking to increase the amount for the base student rate, and would also provide a $68 million increase for school safety spending and more than $230 million for a teacher and principal bonus program. While the House does propose an increase in K-12 funding, it totals around $500 million less than the Senate plan. The Senate is also looking to cut the $140 million Schools of Hope program and move the funding elsewhere in the education budget. The House, however, is looking to increase the program, with a move to allow the schools more flexibility with spending their allocated state dollars. In addition, with the backing of Governor DeSantis, House education leaders are proposing linking the program to the federal opportunity zone program, which would mean a significant expansion of the charter school program statewide. Regarding school safety, the House is proposing keeping school safety funding around last year’s level of just over $160 million. The two chambers also differ on funding for mental health services in schools, with the Senate looking to increase the funding by $30.7 million.
As previously noted, there was some contention between the two chambers this week when, at the request of President Galvano, the House had to postpone a vote on several budget conforming bills. Two of the bills address education matters, with one regarding private school scholarships and the other being a House school safety measure that would allow teachers to carry guns in schools. The House has still yet to vote on the bills, both of which would have a significant budget impact to the state.
The school safety proposal is in continued response to last year’s Parkland massacre and is based on recommendations from a Commission created in response to the shooting. Last session, lawmakers passed language to implement a number of 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 are considering revisions to the measures passed last year, with one of the most controversial proposals being 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.
In the Senate, leaders are proposing a measure to change the way school districts are funded by amending the District Cost Differential (DCD) program and basing it on wages instead of prices. The DCD is utilized to adjust funding based on each district’s cost of living. Senate education leaders are also looking to change the rules and application process for charter schools to open schools at the district level.
With regard to higher education, lawmakers are focused on issues relating to funding for Florida’s colleges and universities this session. Given the recent scandal at the University of Central Florida relating to the misuse of millions of taxpayer dollars, Florida’s higher education institutions are under heavy scrutiny this session – particularly in the House. Speaker Oliva has outlined plans for higher education reform, with increased oversight and accountability measures. One measure would allow state leaders to call for investigations of potential financial mismanagement. In addition, the House budget cuts five projects at state colleges and universities and allows for the completion of other school projects that have already been approved. The House plan would cut higher education construction spending in half from $673 million to $344 million.
Energy, 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. As a result, lawmakers are now focused on methods to remedy these problems and providing adequate funding for those methods.
This issue is a big priority of Governor DeSantis, who committed to providing a total of $2.5 billion in environmental spending over his four-year term. Senate and House leaders are also committed to resolving Florida’s water problems, with the Senate proposing even more funding for water programs than Governor DeSantis. Budget efforts are focused on Everglades restoration, funds for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, land acquisition and conservation programs, petroleum clean up, springs restoration and water quality improvements. Legislatively, Senate members are considering a comprehensive water quality bill to address nutrient levels to prevent algae growth, among other issues.
On the energy front, a key topic this year is a proposed constitutional amendment to deregulate the state’s energy market. The controversial measure, which supporters aim to have placed on the 2020 ballot, would essentially upend the state’s current energy market by limiting investor-owned utilities to just 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 quality and reliability of Florida’s current energy systems. The issue may be resolved by lawmakers, who are currently working to move legislation to limit ballot initiatives, beginning with the 2020 ballot.
In addition, lawmakers are again considering 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. This year’s ban legislation is opposed by environmental groups, who argue the language would alter the definition of fracking to allow the extraction of gas and oil in Florida. The likelihood of fracking measures passing this year is yet to be determined.
Transportation and Economic Development
Transportation will be a key issue this session 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. The measure will likely come down to budget negotiations between the President and the Speaker.
Members are also considering numerous changes to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), particularly regarding the leadership and organization of the agency. The proposal being considered would implement additional requirements for the FDOT secretary regarding education and experience, among other proposed changes. In addition, legislation relating to autonomous vehicles is currently moving through both chambers. The bills authorize the use of vehicles in autonomous mode in Florida, with the goal to make the state a leader in autonomous vehicle testing and allow for more innovation in state transportation policies.
Economic development has been a key issue in Florida for the past decade and has caused a strong amount of contention among state leaders in recent years. One subject of controversy has been Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion agency. Specifically, leaders have sparred in recent years about the efficacy of the organization and the state dollars provided to fund it. The House, under conservative leadership, has long argued that state dollars should not be provided to fund economic development policies and organizations. Therefore, this session House leaders have allocated just enough funding to get Visit Florida through October, when it is set to expire. The Senate, however, has maintained funding for Visit Florida at $50 million – the current funding level. This issue is almost certain to become a matter of negotiation between the two chambers throughout the budget conference process. In an interesting twist, the Senate funding is now tied to an issue surrounding local governments banning certain sunscreens. The amendment would prohibit Visit Florida from spending money to promote areas that have such bans in place, and is particularly targeted at Key West.
Members are also considering a number of pre-emption bills this session to move the regulatory process over a number of rules and industries from the local level to the state level. One of the more controversial measures is included in legislation relating to vacation rentals, which includes a sanction against Airbnb – an issue that has been discussed over recent years. This results from Airbnb’s prohibition on listings in the West Bank, which many leaders see as anti-Semitic. This measure and other pre-emption bills are heavily opposed by local governments.
There is much to be decided and much at stake in the legislature in the coming weeks, with the state budget and a number of potentially controversial issues up for discussion. Members will continue to address legislation already filed and craft amendments to bills addressing various issues. In addition, budget conference will soon be underway, with House and Senate budget leaders looking to push their respective plans and priorities.
The 60-day session is officially set to adjourn on Friday, May 3rd.