Florida lawmakers officially wrapped up the 2019 legislative session on Saturday afternoon. The session was extended by one day due to delays in finalizing the state budget, and a required 72-hour waiting period on a vote once the spending plan was compiled and printed. Members wrapped up all policy efforts late Friday night, then convened only to vote on the budget before officially adjourning the session on Saturday. The Fiorentino Group enjoyed another very successful session working on behalf of our clients, including securing critical funding for numerous projects relating to health care, education, veterans services, transportation and infrastructure projects, local environment and water projects, child safety, and critical initiatives for non-profit organizations in Northeast Florida.
While many significant issues were discussed and debated this session, a total of more than 3,500 bills were filed and less than 200 were approved by both chambers to be sent to Governor DeSantis for his consideration. Of the measures that did pass, many are comprehensive and address a number of the biggest issues impacting the state. These include several major health care policy measures, a measure to change the way constitutional amendments are placed on the ballot, a sweeping school choice bill, and legislation making texting while driving a more serious offense, among others.
Overall, the 2019 session was largely amicable, with the process staying relatively free of strife and conflict. The relationships between state leaders were mostly congenial, even through the normally contentious budget process. In this harmonious working environment, Governor Ron DeSantis, who is currently in his first year leading the state, and legislative leaders – Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) and House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Hialeah), both new to their leadership positions as well – collectively had a very successful session.
The session was also a sweeping success for the Republican Party. From a policy perspective, it was full of conservative wins, with successful bills to implement major health care reforms, ban sanctuary cities, expand private school vouchers, allow for the importation of prescription drugs, and boost laws to arm teachers, among other measures, all passing successfully through the process. The environment between Republican and Democrat leaders stayed remarkably harmonious as well, with one Democrat member accusing Party leaders of having a “get along, go along” mentality when it came to dealing with the Republican-led process.
Governor DeSantis saw several of his policy and funding objectives meet with success, including increased education spending, medical marijuana legislation, and a ban on sanctuary cities. President Galvano saw the success of his biggest session priority – a transportation measure to create three new toll roads in rural areas of the state. In the House, Speaker Oliva successfully pushed numerous sweeping health care measures through the legislative process. Health care reform has long been a key priority for the Speaker and was the subject of one of very few issues that caused contention this session – the Certificate of Need (CON) program. The CON program is a regulatory program that determines how, where and when hospitals and other health care facilities can be built in Florida. Speaker Oliva called for a complete repeal of the program, a move which the Senate strongly opposed early in session. However, the two chambers ultimately negotiated and reached a compromise on the matter, with the measure now headed to the Governor for his action.
Members also saw a smooth and successful budget process this session, with the $91.1 billion spending plan for the coming year passing unanimously through the Senate, and by a vote of 106-2 in the House.
It is generally more common to see sweeping policy measures passed in a non-election year, and that trend held true this session. Next year, Floridians may not see such significant changes come out of the legislature, with many members vying to hold their seats in the 2020 elections. Provided below is a summary of some of the key issues and priorities addressed throughout the 2019 session.
Lawmakers passed the $91.1 billion budget with little fanfare and a strong amount of bipartisan support. The 2019-2020 budget is nearly $2.5 billion more than the current state budget.
Going into session, Governor DeSantis released his proposed spending plan to lawmakers, totaling a record $91.3 billion, with his funding priorities being increased dollars for environmental programs and K-12 schools, and addressing storm recovery efforts for parts of the state still recovering from Hurricane Michael. The final product passed by lawmakers ended up at $200 million less than the Governor’s recommendations. Interestingly, the final legislative budget was around $800 million more than the original Senate budget and $1.2 billion more than the original House budget. Lawmakers provided increases in numerous key areas of the budget, with boosts of nearly $800 million to education, more than $300 million to health care, and nearly $700 million for environment and water projects. In addition, members provided $1.8 billion for Hurricane Michael recovery efforts, as well as a $300 million tax package. Sticking points throughout the budget negotiation process surrounded several key issues, including health care and hospital funding – an issue that has been a source of contention between the two chambers for several years. This session the issue surrounded around $319 million in extra Medicaid funding from the federal government. The House wanted to distribute the funds to hospitals that provide the most charity care to uninsured patients, as has been done in recent years. The Senate wanted to distribute the money evenly to all hospitals. Ultimately, members decided to only distribute $9 million of the funds back to hospitals. The health care budget, which takes up more than 40 percent of the entire state budget, is always one of the last items settled in the budget conference process.
Members also spent time negotiating on various areas of the state education budget – both K-12 and higher education. Early in session House lawmakers proposed less than the Senate for both parts of the education budget, including cuts to state university projects as a result of a recent scandal involving the misuse of funds. Ultimately, the Senate prevailed on higher education funding, providing dollars for Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) for various higher education construction projects. On K-12 spending, lawmakers provided a boost in per-student spending, increased school safety and security funding and upped funding for the state’s teacher bonus program – a priority of Governor DeSantis. On economic development spending, members disagreed throughout session about an issue that has long been a point of contention – the state’s tourism marketing agency, Visit Florida. Speaker Oliva has been a vocal critic of the program, with the House looking to fund the organization only until its expiration date later this year. The Senate, however, called for providing $50 million for the organization. Ultimately, the Senate prevailed and plans to de-fund Visit Florida were scrapped for this year.
The budget will soon be sent to Governor DeSantis for his review and potential veto of certain line items. While the Governor does not have line item veto power in regular policy legislation, he does have the ability to veto certain funding projects in the comprehensive budget bill.
Health care was one of the biggest issues debated during session and has long been a major priority of Speaker Oliva, who began the session looking to make significant changes to remedy what he calls the “health care industrial complex” in Florida. Overall, the Speaker’s health care reform measures were met with success, with four key bills passed. These include a successful Certificate of Need (CON) bill, a bill allowing for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, a measure to expand telehealth services offered in Florida, and a bill expanding the services of ambulatory or outpatient surgery centers.
As noted previously, CON was one of the biggest health care issues lawmakers debated during the session. Ultimately, the two chambers reached a compromise that repeals the program for hospitals, but exempts hospices and nursing homes from the repeal. The repeal of CON laws for regular or general hospitals will be effective this year. For specialty and other hospitals, the repeal won’t go into effect until 2021.
In addition, Speaker Oliva and Governor DeSantis both pushed a landmark proposal to allow for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada to the United States. The measure ultimately passed by lawmakers was a more scaled down version than the original proposal, which would have allowed any pharmacy in Florida to import drugs from Canada. The measure passed by lawmakers will limit the imported drugs to only be used in public health programs. With regard to pricing, it will implement requirements for pharmacies to report how much they pay for imported drugs, but not the prices at which they are then sold.
With regard to telehealth, the bill passed by lawmakers will authorize Florida health care professionals to use telehealth methods to deliver health care services to patients. The measure hit a roadblock over language to allow out-of-state doctors that participate in an interstate licensing agreement to practice telehealth in Florida. The language adopted by lawmakers does not include the out-of-state provision but does leave the door open for the future, calling for a study of the matter. Under the legislation relating to outpatient surgery, patients will now be allowed to stay in surgery centers overnight. This measure is part of a comprehensive health package, which also requires hospitals to notify patients when they are being reviewed for admission. Each of these bills will now be finalized by legislative staff and sent to Governor DeSantis for his consideration.
In addition to the landmark health packages outlined above, there were also numerous other health care measures heard and passed this session. These include a measure relating to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), easing some of the state requirements on health care coverage and requiring most health plans offered in Florida to cover pre-existing conditions should the ACA be changed or no longer be in effect at some point.
Florida’s opioid epidemic also continues to be a critical issue throughout the state and a key priority for lawmakers. Attorney General Ashley Moody pushed a measure this session to allow the Attorney General’s office to access the state’s drug database during opioid investigations. This would be a key component of the overall opioid lawsuit the state is currently pursuing against numerous pharmaceutical drug-makers and pharmacies, including Walgreens and CVS. The legislative effort will give the Attorney General’s office access to patient information for use in the lawsuit. While at one point it looked like this legislation was unlikely to pass, in the final week of session members moved the issue through the process. The Governor has indicated that he plans to sign the bill. This issue has the potential to eventually bring in almost a billion dollars to the state, which would be used for drug treatment programs and other methods to combat the opioid crisis currently plaguing Florida and its citizens.
Members also passed a bill allowing transportation network companies (TNCs) to contract with Medicaid services to provide non-emergency medical transportation services to patients, increasing access for patients who have issues with transport to medical appointments.
One issue that did not pass was a push by House lawmakers to include a provision in this year’s tax package to require Florida’s non-profit hospitals to report information regarding their tax-exempt status. This language was eventually stripped from the tax bill passed by lawmakers.
Each year, lawmakers address large proposals relating to K-12 education and higher education in Florida, and this year was no different. Reforming the state’s K-12 education system has been a big priority of Governor DeSantis and Speaker Oliva, who started the session looking to expand school choice and offer enhanced scholarship programs for Florida’s students, including vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools.
On the funding side, members provided a total of $17 billion to the Florida Education Finance Program, which includes $180 million (an $18 million increase) for school safety and security, as well as $75 million for mental health services in schools. The K-12 education budget provides a $242-per-student increase in school spending, as well as around $285 million in funding for the state’s teacher bonus program – a priority of Governor DeSantis. In addition, members agreed on a groundbreaking and controversial measure to allocate over $158 million in Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) money for maintenance of charter schools in Florida – leaving traditional public schools to continue relying on local tax dollars.
Lawmakers debated numerous comprehensive education proposals in the final days of session, but the biggest issue for members – an issue that has been extensively discussed, considered and debated since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting massacre in Parkland, Florida in 2018 – was school safety and security. After the shooting occurred during session last year, members responded with a measure outlining numerous 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 certain school employees. This year, members considered revisions to the measures passed last year, with a controversial proposal to expand the law allowing teachers to carry guns in schools being debated into the final week of session.
What ultimately passed was a comprehensive school safety package that implements numerous recommendations issued by a commission created after last year’s tragedy. The measure expands the school Guardian Program to allow for armed teachers in schools. The previous law only allowed staff with roles outside of the classroom to carry guns at school. Overall, the bill expands the power of school districts with regard to the Guardian program, removing requirements that districts obtain approval from local sheriffs to establish programs in schools. Governor DeSantis has expressed support for the measure and has indicated that he will sign it into law.
Members also passed a comprehensive school voucher program – the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program – to allow for expanded school choice options for Florida’s students. This was another priority of Governor DeSantis and Speaker Oliva. The measure will expand the Schools of Hope charter program, and has been compared to the voucher program previously created under former Governor Jeb Bush, who was honored during the session. In addition, a controversial education measure was proposed in the tax package passed by lawmakers and involved a long-debated issue surrounding utilizing more local dollars for charter schools. This particular proposal involved tax dollars approved in certain counties in referendums, and whether the money should be used for traditional public schools or shared with charter schools in those counties. The issue was a matter of debate between the two chambers, with the Senate even stripping the language from the tax plan at one point. Ultimately, members compromised on a plan to allow for sharing the local dollars with charter schools in only future referendums held after July 1st.
Lawmakers also passed legislation relating to workforce education in Florida, requiring school districts to offer certain courses and credits to create career opportunities for students. Members also addressed issues relating to Florida Virtual School, putting the organization under the control of the state Board of Education.
With regard to higher education, lawmakers were focused this session on issues relating to funding for Florida’s colleges and universities. Given the recent scandal at the University of Central Florida relating to the misuse of taxpayer dollars, Florida’s higher education institutions were under heavy scrutiny the past few months. Speaker Oliva outlined plans for major higher education reform, looking to increase oversight and accountability measures. While the issue was a source of contention between the two chambers at one point, the House eventually conceded to the Senate and agreed to pass a measure that allows universities to continue spending certain funds on school construction projects. The legislation does require schools to adopt spending plans for the funding, which are reserve or “carry-forward” dollars. The measure also increases reporting requirements with regard to school funds.
Energy and Environment
Environment and water issues in Florida have been a major priority for Governor DeSantis, who committed to providing a total of $2.5 billion in environmental spending over his four-year term. Senate and House leaders have also expressed commitment to resolving Florida’s water problems and focusing budget efforts on various environmental programs and projects throughout the state. Funding-wise, members exceeded the Governor’s request, providing more than $680 million for water quality and protection programs. Legislatively, members began session considering a comprehensive water quality bill to address nutrient levels to prevent algae growth around Lake Okeechobee and its tributaries, among other water issues. However, ultimately, this and other environmental policy measures failed. Members did, however, pass legislation relating to the state’s Red Tide issue and provided an annual allocation of $3 million for the matter.
On the energy front, a key topic this session was 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 energy market by limiting investor-owned utilities to only construction, operation and repairs, and giving customers the ability to choose their energy providers. With many strong opinions on both sides of this issue, it was particularly concerning to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, as well as state lawmakers, who all see the potential for major crisis if the state’s energy market is turned upside down. As a result, both chambers of the legislature launched efforts this session to block the amendment from being placed on the 2020 ballot. In addition to attorneys for both chambers filing briefs against the measure late last month and urging the Supreme Court to block it from the ballot, both chambers moved legislation through the process this session to increase requirements for placing initiatives on the ballot. And although the legislation looked all but dead as session was nearing its end, members actually approved the proposal in the final hours of session. The bill passed will increase requirements on groups working to get amendment language on the ballot, including implementing registration and hourly wage rules, as well as requiring certain information about the amendment to be printed on the ballot. The measure will now go to Governor DeSantis for his consideration.
Members also considered legislation to ban fracking in Florida, but the measure had ambiguous language that led to opposition from both sides of the issue. Ultimately, the measure died without final hearing.
Transportation, Economic Development and Incentives
Transportation is a key issue for lawmakers every session. This remained true this year, particularly in the Senate, with President Galvano making a comprehensive rural transportation program his biggest priority. As session began, President Galvano called 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 and provide an additional hurricane evacuation option for Floridians. The measure was at times used as a bargaining chip on budget matters and was heavily opposed by environmental groups, but ultimately passed successfully through session. The final product approved by lawmakers is a program to build President Galvano’s three requested corridors. The projects are as follows: the Southwest-Central Florida Connector from Collier to Polk County; the Suncoast Connector from Citrus to Jefferson County; and the Northern Turnpike Connector from the Florida Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway.
Members also considered numerous comprehensive transportation measures this session, many of which passed successfully through the legislative process and will now be sent to Governor DeSantis. The provisions adopted by lawmakers include language relating to the Florida Department of Transportation procurement process. Members also passed a bill authorizing 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 – particularly Speaker Oliva – has long argued that state dollars should not be provided to fund economic development policies and organizations. Therefore, early in the budget process House leaders allocated just enough funding to get Visit Florida through October, when it is set to expire. The Senate, however, proposed $50 million in funding for the organization. Ultimately Visit Florida was granted a reprieve thanks to Governor DeSantis, who convinced lawmakers to keep the agency for another year. Lawmakers allocated $50 million for the program in 2019-2020.
Members also passed a tax package successfully through the process this year. The measure will provide more than $120 million in tax breaks for Floridians, including several sales-tax holidays on back-to-school items and hurricane supplies, as well as tax relief for farmers in the Panhandle area as part of the Hurricane Michael relief and recovery effort.
Since the passage of a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in Florida in 2016, lawmakers have been focused on the issue and working to create laws to implement the amendment language. Medical Marijuana was actually the subject of the first bill signed into law by Governor DeSantis this session. The legislation signed into law repeals the ban on smoking medical marijuana, which was part of the original implementation bill passed by lawmakers in 2017. The repeal will make the medicine more accessible for patients throughout the state.
Some House lawmakers also pushed legislation this session to establish a limit on the level of THC allowed in medical cannabis products in the state. The measure, which would have prompted the Florida Department of Health to establish oversight of medical cannabis in Florida, would have also limited the supply of edible cannabis products for patients and increased regulations of daily dosages. The language, however, lacked support in the Senate and died without passage.
Members also considered several measures relating to a hemp program in Florida, and ultimately passed a bill to establish regulations for a hemp industry in the state. The measure directs the Florida Department of Agriculture to oversee licensing and establishing standards for the cultivation and production of hemp in Florida. Hemp can be harvested for the production of cannabidiol, a product used in supplements and other dietary and wellness items. This follows the legalization of hemp at the federal level last year.
The 2019 session was an overwhelming success for lawmakers, Governor DeSantis, and the leaders currently overseeing the Senate and House.
At this time, the Governor has received a total of only 24 bills, with 22 signed into law and two waiting for action. Legislative staff is currently working to finalize 170 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 once he receives the comprehensive state budget bill passed by lawmakers. With the budget, however, the Governor has line item veto power.
Most of the bills passed this session, as well as the state budget, will go into effect July 1st. After that, there will only be a short amount of time before the process will start again. With the new policy of moving session up two months in election years, the 2020 legislative session will start next January, which means committee weeks could begin as early as September.