Florida lawmakers convened in Tallahassee yesterday to kick off the 2021 legislative session. The official start followed weeks of preparation, with lawmakers periodically holding interim legislative committee meetings since the beginning of the year to discuss and debate various policy and funding matters on tap for session. Events began with Governor Ron DeSantis giving his annual State of the State address, followed by Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) and House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) convening ceremonial kick-off sessions and giving opening speeches before the Florida Senate and Florida House of Representatives.
Last year’s session wrapped up in March 2020, just as the world was experiencing the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the months following, the impacts of the pandemic were felt throughout the state and around the world. Florida, one of the most popular tourism locations in the country, saw annual visitor totals cut by about one third. While ultimately, the economic impacts have not been as severe as predicted, the state still faces a looming budget shortfall of more than $2.7 billion as lawmakers are set to craft a state budget for the coming year. Even this, however, stands to change. The actual total deficit the state will face is largely dependent on the next round of federal aid.
There were numerous new members sworn into the legislature following last year’s general election, and President Simpson and Speaker Sprowls were officially sworn into their leadership positions for the next two years. While other parts of the country flipped to blue during the 2020 general election, Florida essentially went from red to redder. Florida Senate Republicans flipped one seat from blue to red, Florida House Republicans flipped five seats, and even two of Florida’s 27 congressional seats were flipped from blue to red (in addition to three open Congressional seats being secured by Republican candidates). This Republican stronghold is already evident this session, with proposals filed to implement or expand conservative policies like liability protections for businesses and hospitals, and school choice programs, among others.
It is generally more common to see sweeping policy measures passed in a non-election year. Policy changes may be even more prevalent than usual this year, given the budget constraints and economic downturn resulting from the pandemic.
Governor Ron DeSantis has worked tirelessly for Florida throughout his time in office – and has emerged as a strong leader for the state. The Governor released his budget recommendations to the legislature last month. Considering that a record $1 billion was vetoed from the 2020-2021 state budget after session wrapped up last year, it was surprising to see the Governor’s recommendations totaling $96.6 billion – $5 billion more than his recommendations last year and over $4 billion more than the final budget signed into law after last year’s lengthy veto list.
This session, the Governor is making a strong push for substantive changes to state laws relating to big technology companies, as well continuing efforts to stave off foreign influence and espionage in Florida organizations. The Governor, along with Speaker Sprowls, is pushing a proposal to combat efforts by China and other countries to steal intellectual property from U.S. businesses and education institutions. The legislation would implement stricter vetting procedures and increase safeguards against foreign influence.
The Governor has also come out strong against five large technology companies that censor user activity and content with, many believe, the intent to impact U.S. elections. This is in direct response to the 2020 presidential election, where sites like Facebook and Twitter censored various forms of news and media that were most often in support of Republican candidates and policies. The Governor, with the support of President Simpson and Speaker Sprowls, wants to allow states and individuals to sue these tech companies for their censorship policies. The five “tech giants” called out by state leaders are Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple and Amazon.
Leaders are crafting legislation for consideration this session to impose regulations and restrictions on the tech companies, including allowing the Florida Elections Commission to levy substantial fines for censorship and suppression of candidate information. It’s possible this legislation will raise alarms with other large companies, outside of the aforementioned five, who will be looking to be held harmless.
Governor DeSantis and other state leaders are also supporting legislation to amend state election laws and place more regulations on vote-by-mail practices.
On the Senate side, recent activities and statements have indicated a shift in the upper chamber toward more conservative policies. In previous years, the House has been the staunchly conservative chamber, while the Senate is typically more in the middle on partisan issues. However, President Simpson has outlined a solidly conservative agenda, with proposals for expanding school choice and cracking down on certain election policies, as well as a willingness to consider placing limits on medical marijuana (a move blocked by the Senate in recent years). President Simpson has two major education priorities this session – one to overhaul Florida’s voucher programs, and the other to make substantive changes to the state’s Bright Futures scholarship program.
Legislative leaders in both chambers have also highlighted liability protections for businesses and health care providers as one of their highest priorities this session, with President Simpson mentioning the issue in his opening remarks. Simpson is also supporting a controversial push in the Senate to move state workers away from the traditional pension system and into investment plans, highlighting the $36 billion unfunded liability currently facing the state. Under the plan, the change would apply to new employees only (those hired after July 1, 2022).
On the House side, Speaker Sprowls addressed his chamber yesterday and highlighted numerous legislative priorities, including support for workforce education programs. Sprowls remains a staunch conservative and will be a strong force leading the House for the next two years.
While efforts have been fairly collaborative between the legislative and executive branches to this point, differing priorities will most likely bring some contention between officials over the next 60 days.
The full reality of the pandemic was just setting in as lawmakers passed a $93 billion legislative budget last year. By the time the spending plan was sent to the Governor and worked through the veto process, a record total of $1 billion had been cut. Discussions that followed regarding this year’s budget were bleak at best. Even as revenue reports over the past few months have surpassed expectations, lawmakers have remained clear – the budget is tight, federal dollars are a temporary luxury, full recovery will be slow, and reserve funding is critical.
The anticipated budget shortfall for fiscal year 2021-2022 totals more than $2.7 billion. This is as a result of decreased revenue collections and rising health care costs, with the state’s already-massive Medicaid program only growing larger as a result of the pandemic. At this point, these issues could be addressed by federal dollars if the Biden administration extends federal pandemic Medicaid funds through the end of next year. That would cover new Medicaid enrollees, and work to fill the budget shortfall currently looming over the appropriations process. Presently, it remains unclear exactly what the state budget picture will be.
Choosing an optimistic approach, Governor DeSantis released his record $96.6 billion spending plan last month. Highlighting state revenue collections at more than $800 million above estimates made late last year, the Governor is looking to invest in Florida, with calls for additional increases in education spending, boosts in spending on workforce education programs, and large investments in programs that address environmental issues. The Governor’s plan is more than $4 billion above the current state budget, but factors in federal funds for spending related to the pandemic.
Legislative reaction to the Governor’s plan has been mixed, with Senate lawmakers aiming for a more conservative spending approach. Senate Appropriations Chair Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) recently expressed plans to “prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” pointing out that even with revenue collections higher than expected, the state will still begin the next fiscal year with a significant shortfall. In fact, legislative leaders have hinted at possible cuts to programs that are typically untouchable, including education and health care.
On the education front, the Governor calls for a $285 million increase in funding for public schools. However, there are nearly 90,000 less students enrolled in Florida public schools than prior to the pandemic. When writing the state budget, less students means less funding. This is something lawmakers will work extensively to address during the budget process.
Another big component of this year’s budget discussions is a $1 billion proposal by Governor DeSantis to create the “Resilient Florida” program. Under the program, the state would provide (through bonds) grant funding to local governments to combat the effects of rising sea levels. While this issue is a priority for House and Senate leaders as well, the Republican-led legislature is reluctant to incur the debt, particularly in such a volatile and uncertain economic time.
Late last week, Speaker Sprowls introduced his own environmental spending proposal, with the plan eventually allocating $100 million annually for a sea level rise program. This is significantly less than Governor DeSantis’ plan, but shows that addressing the issue is a priority for all state leaders. We expect this to be a key issue discussed and debated throughout the budget process, and it could become an issue for negotiation during budget conference. This is an issue Republicans see as important to Florida’s electorate and to the economy.
A proposed change to online sales tax collections will also be one of the bigger issues addressed this session. The proposal would require out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes when Floridians make purchases online. This would bring fairness to the Florida market. If passed, the measure could potentially net the state more than $900 million in additional tax revenue in the next fiscal year alone, and more than $1 billion in the years following. This could also bring significant local revenues, with estimates showing more than $200 million annually for local governments, if the measure is passed.
One of the biggest priorities for state leaders in recent months has been protecting Florida businesses and health care providers from legal liabilities due to the pandemic. There are multiple proposals moving through both chambers. The House legislation for businesses has already passed through the committee process and is set to be taken up for initial reading on the House floor this week. The Senate version of the legislation was heard in its last assigned committee yesterday. The bills aim to make it more difficult to sue a business for issues or situations related to COVID. Up until today, the business protection measures have moved pretty smoothly through the session process, while the health care proposals have proven to be much more complex and contentious. However, yesterday Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) announced plans to amend the Senate business liability plan to include health care protection measures as well.
While both chambers are looking to pass protections for hospitals and doctors, as well as nursing homes and assisted living facilities, the House and Senate plans differ on how the claims against these organizations are defined, as well as how long the legal protections should be in effect. While leaders were hoping to move these bills as quickly as possible through the session process, this will likely be a heavily debated issue in the weeks to come.
One of the most widely discussed issues among lawmakers leading up to the start of session has surrounded the nearly 90,000 “missing” children who were enrolled in public school prior to the pandemic and are now not enrolled in school at all – at least, not according to information previously released by school districts. While many of these students are likely now being homeschooled or attending private school instead, it is not yet known how many are simply not accounted for.
Florida’s K-12 schools rely on state funding on a “per student” basis for face-to-face instruction. However, when large numbers of students transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic, the state allowed for districts to keep their funding, based on projections rather than actual attendance, as long as they were at least providing full-time, in-person instruction as an option. As lawmakers look ahead to crafting a budget while facing a shortfall, the decision of what to do about funding for those 90,000 “missing” students is posing a big question.
Last month, Speaker Sprowls sent a formal letter to state superintendents expressing that the allowance for funding based on projections rather than actual face-to-face student learning should be ended, and that funds should instead be based on “actual enrollment.” This will likely be a key issue discussed and debated in the coming weeks and throughout the process of crafting a state budget.
On the policy side, each year, lawmakers consider large proposals relating to K-12 education in Florida. Governor DeSantis has consistently expressed his support for increased K-12 funding, seeing success last year on his push for increased teacher salaries, as well as school choice and voucher programs. President Simpson and Speaker Sprowls are also big advocates for school choice, and there are many proposals on the table for consideration this session. The Senate has introduced a comprehensive bill to expand eligibility for voucher programs and allow parents to utilize taxpayer-funded education savings accounts for their children to attend private schools – a big priority for President Simpson. The Senate legislation would also condense state voucher programs into two main scholarships.
Democrat lawmakers are pushing for changes in accountability for students in light of the pandemic. The legislation, filed in both chambers, would prohibit standardized test scores from counting against students. The state recently announced that it was granting schools additional time for standardized testing this year. In addition, lawmakers are considering a proposal to allow for parents to have their K-8 students retained, given the upheaval of their typical learning procedures.
In addition, Speaker Sprowls has highlighted early literacy as a key priority, and is pushing an initiative currently moving through the House to provide free books to elementary students who struggle with reading in Florida.
On the higher education front, President Simpson is making it a priority to overhaul the state’s Bright Futures scholarship program. The proposed changes would tie funding to degree programs, and base financial awards on whether or not the degree a student is pursuing will lead directly to a job.
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.
This year, “resiliency” is the key issue on the environmental front for session, with Governor DeSantis proposing a comprehensive program, and President Simpson and Speaker Sprowls highlighting the issue as a priority for their chambers as well. The Governor’s plan to create the “Resilient Florida” program would provide substantial state grant money to state agencies and local governments to address issues resulting from rising sea levels. Senate lawmakers will consider a proposal to create a permanent statewide Office of Resiliency to be housed within the Governor’s office, as well as a task force to address issues and mitigate problems from rising waters going forward.
On the House side, Speaker Sprowls has introduced his sea level package, which would provide local governments with $25 million in the coming fiscal year, followed by $100 million annually in the years following to protect against flooding issues. Unlike the Governor’s plan, Speaker Sprowls does not rely on bonding as the funding source. Sprowls also supports proposals to provide tax incentives for property owners who elevate their homes to protect from sea level rise.
The Senate is also pushing a measure to expedite the development of water storage north of Lake Okeechobee in order to prevent further algae blooms.
While health care issues have been at the forefront in previous legislative sessions, with sweeping measures passed to protect consumer and patient interests, this year’s proposals – at least at this point – are focused heavily on COVID-19, with liability protections for health providers and organizations being the primary initiative. However, there are other issues being presented. In an effort to protect against any future efforts to move to a completely government-funded (or single-payer) health care system, Senate lawmakers have proposed a constitutional amendment to require a two-thirds vote of the full legislature before such a system could be enacted in Florida.
Lawmakers are also moving legislation to combat COVID-19 vaccine fraud, with Speaker Sprowls highlighting the measure as a priority. The proposal focuses on scams relating to the vaccine and other health care equipment, including fraudulent websites offering the vaccine or other products for payment.
Lawmakers will also again consider legislation relating to telehealth in Florida. The proposal would authorize the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) to reimburse for telehealth services provided to patients under the Medicaid program.
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. After repealing the ban on smoking medical marijuana in 2018, lawmakers have considered proposals to establish a limit on the level of THC allowed in medical cannabis products in the state.
The measure has generally been supported in the House and blocked in the Senate. This year, the House proposal to place a ten percent cap on THC has already been introduced. With Senator (and former House Representative) Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) – who led the issue in the House for the past two years – now leading the charge in the Senate, the outcome could potentially be different this year. President Simpson has expressed more of an openness to a THC cap, but has stopped short of supporting the move, and has instead stated that he plans to watch the issue as it moves through the House.
This could become a very contentious issue this session. Opponents argue such a move would be detrimental to patients and would go against the original intent of medical marijuana legalization – a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly supported by Florida voters.
Transportation and Infrastructure
Two years ago, former Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) passed his largest priority for session – the creation of a new, comprehensive rural transportation program in Florida. Known as Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES), the project encompassed three expansive highway projects in rural areas of the state. M-CORES are now officially part of the Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) Five-Year Work Program, and are projected to cost the state more than $100 million annually going forward (construction is set to begin in 2022). Democrat lawmakers in both chambers have announced proposals to remove the toll roads from state statute, essentially blocking the projects from going forward and freeing up the state dollars in a time of economic downturn. Proponents of M-CORES highlight the economic development opportunities where it is much needed – in some of the most rural parts of the state.
Just last week, President Simpson announced a proposal that could essentially upend the M-CORES program. The measure would essentially repeal the 2019 law creating the program, but would allow for two projects similar to those outlined in the previous plan.
Governor DeSantis’ spending plan calls to fully fund the Five-Year Work Program, which includes various highway construction, seaport, airport, and rail projects. However, state transportation officials recently either cut or delayed nearly 80 projects from the Program in effort to prepare for the budget shortfall. Officials have clarified that these are not active projects.
Lawmakers in both chambers will also consider comprehensive transportation packages this session, which outline FDOT’s legislative priorities for the year, and include matters relating to the state’s roadways, transportation policies, airports and seaports, among other issues.
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 3,000 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 hopefully receive more clarification on the state’s budget situation. Members 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, April 30th.