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Florida lawmakers will kick off the 2020 legislative session this morning in Tallahassee.  The official start of session follows months of preparation, with legislators and staff periodically holding interim policy and appropriations committee meetings since September.

There will be much at stake for Florida lawmakers over the coming 60-day session.  It is generally more common to see sweeping policy measures passed in a non-election year, and that trend held true in 2019.  Last session, legislation implementing several major health care policy changes, updated rules for placing constitutional amendments on the ballot, and a sweeping school choice bill were all successfully passed by the legislature.  Even with the 2020 election right around the corner, there are still big issues up for debate this session, including a proposed overhaul of the way teachers are compensated in Florida, a controversial abortion proposal, continued school security discussions, and potential changes to Florida’s medical marijuana laws, among numerous other substantive proposals.

This year, the priorities of Florida’s Republican state leaders will perhaps be even more important than usual, as their success could have an impact on the 2020 Presidential Election in Florida.  For his part, Governor Ron DeSantis’ approval rating continues to be very high at more than 60 percent.  His recommendations to the legislature for his second session as Governor should hold appeal for both parties, with the Governor pushing a conservative policy agenda while also supporting increased funding for teachers, as well as boosts in spending for environmental programs.

The 2019 session was a win for the Republican Party, with major policy successes for conservatives, and was largely successful for each of the state’s key leaders – Governor DeSantis, Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) and House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Hialeah).  Also notable last year were the remarkably harmonious working relationships between the three state leaders, with each overseeing the success of their biggest priorities with little contention in the process.  This year, however, lawmakers and the Governor are at odds over several key issues, including education policy and spending, economic development programs, and placing mandates on businesses in order to combat illegal immigration in Florida.

Governor DeSantis has been hard at work on his legislative proposals for this year, driving a plan to increase teacher salaries in Florida, which he first announced last fall.  While this is one of the Governor’s top priorities for the session, reception among legislative leaders has been mixed.  Leaders in both the House and Senate support increasing teacher pay, but will have different proposals for creating and implementing the plan.  The Governor is also pushing for increased funding for land conservation and water quality projects, maintaining his commitment to provide record funding for Florida’s environmental programs during his first term as Governor.

While these issues have support among legislative leaders, this may also be a year where budget leaders are looking to tighten spending even more than usual, leaving potential for a showdown over some of the spending increases outlined in the Governor’s plan.  The Governor also supports keeping Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency – putting him directly at odds with Speaker Oliva, who has long been a strong opponent of what he sees as wasteful government spending on the state economic development organization.  The Senate is also at odds with the House on this issue, with Senate members voting to reauthorize Visit Florida until 2028 during a committee meeting last November.  State leaders will also have to decide what requirements should be placed on businesses with regard to verifying employee eligibility as part of an effort to combat illegal immigration.  The system is known as E-Verify, and Governor DeSantis is a strong supporter, but legislative leaders are reluctant to place the burdensome requirement on businesses.  These and other possibly contentious issues will likely see considerable debate over the next two months.

On the legislative side, President Galvano continues working on his comprehensive transportation legislation passed last year to create three toll road corridors in the state, with lawmakers looking this year to enhance funding for the program and potentially add infrastructure projects.  House Speaker Oliva saw overwhelming success during the first year of his leadership, with numerous health care reforms at the top of his priority list successfully passed and implemented.  This year, the Speaker remains focused on keeping Florida’s health care market competitive and transparent, and working to combat wasteful state spending of taxpayer dollars.

Members will also address numerous other policy and funding matters, including a potentially expansive gaming proposal, with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues to the state at risk if lawmakers don’t come to consensus on the issue.

Provided below and in the following pages is an overview of some of the key topics up for discussion and debate during the 2020 session.


 State Budget

Last October, Governor DeSantis made a major announcement on K-12 education spending, calling for more than $600 million in state funds to increase salaries for Florida’s teachers and set the minimum annual teacher salary at $47,500. In the weeks following this announcement, the Governor released his full 2020-2021 budget recommendations to the legislature, totaling $91.4 billion. The plan calls for $1 billion in total K-12 education spending, including the increased salary dollars, plus around $300 million for a new bonus program. While legislators remain supportive of increased education funding, aiming to boost per-student spending and increase dollars for mental health programs and school safety initiatives, reception of the Governor’s increased salary proposal has been mixed among lawmakers. Some have expressed concerns about the spending increase at a time when state revenue projections show a possible slowdown over the next several years. House and Senate leaders have expressed their plans to continue their same budget strategy going forward – focusing on increasing reserves, reducing debt and keeping taxes low. However, increasing teacher salaries is a priority for the Governor, and will likely become a top issue for negotiation as the state budget is crafted.

The Governor’s plan also calls for increased funding for Florida’s public colleges and universities, $100 million for land conservation, more than $600 million for water quality and protection projects, and nearly $10 billion to fully fund the state transportation budget. On the health care side, the Governor is requesting more than $20 million for the state’s brand new prescription drug importation plan, which is still pending federal approval. In addition, just this month it was announced that Medicaid payments to state hospitals that serve large numbers of low income patients would be cut by more than $70 million. However, the rollback has been delayed at the Congressional level. As a result, the cut is currently not included in state revenue and budget projections.

As noted above, state leaders will likely square off about economic development funding – particularly an allocation to keep Visit Florida, which coordinates the state’s tourism marketing services. In previous years, Visit Florida received $76 million in annual funding. Last year that funding was cut to $50 million. Governor DeSantis has called for maintaining the $50 million – a move supported by the Senate. However, Speaker Oliva is strongly opposed to funding the organization.


Gaming

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. Whether this will be the year for new substantive gaming laws in Florida remains to be seen.

In recent years, while gaming has been extensively discussed and debated, the House and Senate have simply been unable to agree on the issue. As a result, members have failed to ratify a new compact between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the state, risking hundreds of millions in potential revenue. In addition, a powerful coalition of anti-gambling groups worked in 2018 to successfully pass an amendment on the ballot requiring voter approval for any new form or expansion of gambling.

For the 2020 session, all bets are on the table. Several gaming bills have been filed, but thus far, there is no big comprehensive measure addressing all issues at stake. One key component of any real change on the issue is sports betting – a topic included in a bill filed by Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg). Senator Brandes’ bill would include legalization of sports betting under the Florida Lottery, which would allow lawmakers to work around the 2018 rule that requires voter approval.

Members also have to decide whether to renew or amend the compact with the Tribe, or move forward with expansion without a compact. Payments from the Tribe to the state (totaling $350 million annually) have ceased – at least temporarily – because the Tribe alleges that certain “banked” card games are being allowed illegally in some betting venues, which violates the agreement. Budget writers have left Tribe dollars out of 2020-2021 budget equations for now. While Governor DeSantis has expressed optimism about working out a new deal with the Tribe, Senate leaders seem less willing to renew the relationship. Further on the gambling issue, President Galvano previously expressed that he may consider working to repeal the gaming amendment passed by Florida voters in 2018.


E-Verify

The topic of illegal immigration remains at the forefront nationwide. Last session, lawmakers passed a ban on Sanctuary Cities in Florida – a top priority of Governor DeSantis. The topic will likely again be discussed and debated this session – this time regarding E-Verify, a service used by employers to verify that employees are eligible to work in the United States. Governor DeSantis is a strong proponent of E-Verify, calling for lawmakers to support the program and pass legislation requiring businesses to utilize it to ensure employees are legally eligible to work. This was setting up to be a potential fight in the legislature, with many opposed to such a mandate on private businesses, including President Galvano. However, the measure just filed in the House is looking to be a compromise on the issue, requiring only government employers to use the service – not private companies.


K-12 Education

Each year, lawmakers consider large proposals relating to K-12 education in Florida, and 2020 looks to be no exception.  Governor DeSantis has consistently expressed his support for increased K-12 funding and reforms, including school choice and voucher programs.  Presently, the Governor has made K-12 education his top priority this session, with landmark funding for salaries and a bonus program included in his recommended spending plan for lawmakers.

The Governor’s proposal to increase teacher salaries has been met with strong criticism by the state teachers’ union, and more mild criticism from some lawmakers.  Unions have expressed concerns about whether the plan will impede teachers’ rights to negotiate their salaries.  On the legislative side, while members support increasing pay, there are some concerns about the way the Governor’s plan compensates new teachers versus longtime veteran teachers.  The Governor is also proposing a new bonus plan, totaling $300 million, to replace the current “Best and Brightest” program, which will be up for repeal this session.  The Governor’s plan also includes increased funding for student mental health and school security grants.

In addition, Governor DeSantis outlined a proposal to expand the voucher program approved by lawmakers last year – the Family Empowerment Scholarship – to allow children of military families who move to Florida to utilize the vouchers.  The Governor also aims to expand the program to additional kindergarten-thru-second grade students, as well as students who receive other scholarships.

The topic of school security has been at the forefront of education policy in Florida since the tragic Parkland shooting in 2018.  A grand jury was recently called to investigate school security methods and policies in Florida, and released a report last month outlining strong criticisms of school districts.  The report includes information about the ways districts are mishandling the new Guardian program passed by lawmakers in response to the tragedy, which allows teachers and other school employees to carry guns.  While the panel backs the program, it launched extensive criticism at districts for poor interpretation and implementation.  The report will likely serve as the blueprint for school safety and security legislation this session, with President Galvano expressing that it would likely be a key issue going forward.


Higher Education

Last session, lawmakers placed a key focus on higher education issues, particularly regarding funding for Florida’s public colleges and universities.  This year, the State University System is requesting a landmark increased spending plan totaling $252 million. The “Pillars of Excellence” plan would boost performance funding by $100 million, and provide $152 million for Florida’s designated pre-eminent universities, as well as schools working to achieve the designation. The majority of the funds would go to the state’s top three preeminent schools: Florida State University, the University of Florida, and the University of South Florida. Universities are also seeking $100 million in additional state funds to clear a lengthy backlog of maintenance and repair projects.

Last year, numerous states throughout the country announced plans to overturn a longtime rule put in place by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) that prohibits college athletes from accepting compensation relating to their sports positions until after they graduate. This included endorsements, appearances and sponsorships. Florida was one of several states calling for the rule to change, with measures filed in the House authorizing student athletes to receive specified compensation. The legislation was endorsed by Governor DeSantis last October. Just days after the Governor’s endorsement, the NCAA announced that it would start allowing student athletes to receive compensation. The organization is currently working to determine the specifics and provide guidelines going forward, with a new policy expected by January 2021 and compensation set to be allowed beginning in 2023. Yesterday, three House committees – the Education Committee, Commerce Committee and Judiciary Committee – met jointly to hold a workshop on the issue.


Health Care

Health care was one of the biggest issues addressed last session, with four key bills passed. These included 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. All of these measures were priorities of Speaker Oliva who, in his first year leading the House, saw landmark success on his issues. Speaker Oliva was clear that he would work hard to fight what he called the “health care industrial complex” in Florida, and these new laws are the result of his efforts.

This session, Republicans are pushing a controversial measure to require minors to obtain parental consent in order to get an abortion. The legislation has been fast-tracked in the House, has the approval of Senate President Galvano, and will likely be supported by Governor DeSantis. This move could also have an impact on the upcoming election, possibly resulting in an abortion debate among presidential candidates.

The Governor continues to see success on his push for allowing for prescription drugs imported from Canada, with the Department of Health working since last session to prepare and outline guidelines for an importation program in Florida. At this time, the state is waiting for federal approval to move forward, but Governor DeSantis requested state funding in the coming budget to get the program underway. In addition, last November the Governor unveiled a new website that allows consumers to research options for health care, including price transparency and comparison tools.

Other 2020 health care proposals include a bill to allow school districts to stock naloxone, a medication used to combat opioid overdoses; a bill to allow pharmacists to test patients for the flu and strep throat; and a measure to create a Prescription Drug Donation Program in Florida to allow for the redistribution of prescription drugs to qualifying low-income patients. In addition, House leaders have outlined legislation to provide more transparency for pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) as a priority this session. This year lawmakers will also consider legislation to allow Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody to be notified about hospital mergers, and grant her office the power to receive information to ensure all laws are being upheld.


Marijuana

Since Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2016 to legalize medical marijuana in Florida, state lawmakers have worked to create laws to implement the amendment language. The implementation bill passed by the legislature in 2017 established a structure and process for growing, marketing, selling and prescribing medical marijuana in Florida. Since then, the issue has been at the center of numerous legal cases, with the framework established by lawmakers in 2017 currently at risk after being declared unconstitutional. The Florida Department of Health responded to this ruling with an appeal for rehearing, which was denied, so the state took the appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. Most recently, the Department adopted emergency rules to provide a framework for businesses growing and selling marijuana.

Also on the marijuana issue, after repealing the ban on smoking medical marijuana in 2018, lawmakers this year will look to establish a limit on the level of THC allowed in medical cannabis products in the state. This issue was filed for consideration last year, but lacked support in the Senate and died without passage. Last month, President Galvano expressed that he may be willing to consider a THC cap this session. In addition, Senator Brandes has again filed legislation calling for horizontal integration of the marijuana industry, which would open up the cannabis market.


Energy and the 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 first 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. Last session, members exceeded the Governor’s funding request for the year, providing more than $680 million for water quality and protection programs. In addition, members passed legislation to address the state’s Red Tide problem, providing an annual allocation of $3 million to combat the issue.

This year, Governor DeSantis is focused on continued increased funding for environmental programs, including water quality and land conservation. In addition, the Governor is recommending measures to set stronger pollution rules, and increase penalties when sewage is spilled into waterways throughout the state. The Governor’s proposal is based on recommendations made by the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, which he created shortly after he was sworn into office. Under his plan, state officials would be allowed to inspect sewage treatment plants, taking a more proactive approach than in the past, when the state could only react to spills. In the Senate, members will consider comprehensive legislation filed by Senator Debbie Mayfield (R-Indialantic). The Senate water bill, known as the Clean Waterways Act, focuses heavily on issues relating to septic tanks and sewage spills, and factors in some of the recommendations made by the Blue-Green Algae Task Force. The bill calls for sewage treatment guidelines and addresses matters relating to septic-to-sewer conversion, biosolids, and wastewater spills. In addition, legislation has been filed in both chambers to increase fines on local governments when sewage is spilled into state waterways.

This session lawmakers will also consider legislation to amend the state’s recycling goals, with many seeing the 75 percent statewide goal passed a decade ago as unrealistic. Legislation has been filed in both chambers to extend the deadline for reaching the recycling goal, and provide an exemption for fiscally constrained counties. Lawmakers will also hear proposals to prohibit local governments from granting legal rights to nature, including plants, animals and water bodies. Legislation was filed in the Senate just this month in response to citizen initiatives regarding access and rights to water bodies.

With regard to energy and climate issues, Democrat Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami) has filed several legislative proposals to address issues relating to climate change. The measures call for studies into the effects of climate change on human health, offer incentives for land management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and set goals for utilizing renewable energy. While these are Democrat-supported measures, Florida’s Republican leaders are planning to focus on climate issues as well. President Galvano has made particular note of the issue, announcing his intentions to focus on protecting Florida’s coastlines to prepare for rising sea levels. In addition, the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee has been working on a legislative package to address issues relating to climate change, establishing a Statewide Sea-Level Rise Task Force to recommend next steps on the issue. The legislation would also make the Statewide Office of Resiliency permanent.

Last session, a key topic for lawmakers was a proposed constitutional amendment to deregulate the state’s energy market. The controversial measure, which supporters aimed to have placed on the 2020 ballot, would have upended the state’s energy market by limiting investor-owned utilities to only construction, operation and repairs, giving customers the ability to choose their energy providers. The amendment, which was concerning for lawmakers, utility companies and other interested parties, was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court this month, with the Court ruling that the language was misleading for voters.


Transportation and Economic Development

Transportation was a key issue for lawmakers last session, with President Galvano successfully passing his biggest priority for 2019 – the creation of a new, comprehensive rural transportation program in Florida. President Galvano called for 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 final product approved by lawmakers creates 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. This year, President Galvano will continue his efforts on this comprehensive plan, with plans to secure additional funding and possibly expand the program to include additional infrastructure projects.

Governor DeSantis’ spending plan calls for $9.8 billion to fully fund the Florida Department of Transportation’s budget request for the year. The funds cover FDOT’s five-year work program, which includes various highway construction, seaport, airport and rail projects. Lawmakers in both chambers will also consider standard comprehensive transportation packages, which outline FDOT’s legislative priorities for the year, and include matters relating to FDOT leadership, compensation, and agency procurement practices, among other matters. This session, House and Senate members will also hear several other legislative proposals relating to transportation policy, including measures to enhance the Transportation Disadvantaged program, create an Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Grant Program, and address safety regulations for high-speed passenger rail services in the state. In addition, legislation has been filed in both chambers regarding transportation network companies (TNC), with bills outlining new guidelines for TNC drivers and riders, as well as requirements for TNC vehicles.

With regard to economic development, in addition to the debate between the Governor and legislative leaders over funding Visit Florida, lawmakers will also consider legislation to utilize funds from the $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund to fund workforce training programs at charter schools. Senator Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) has also filed legislation to provide $2 million in rebates for film production companies in Florida.


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. As of this writing, members have already filed nearly 3,400 bills for consideration this session.  The number of bills that will actually be heard and moved through the process, however, will be much smaller.  Typically, only about 200 bills 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, March 13th.