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2021 Legislative Session Kick-Off

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.


Leadership

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.


Budget

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.


Liability Protections

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.


Education

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.


Environmental Matters

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.


Health Care

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.


Medical 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. 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.


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 3,000 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.

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Political Preview 2021

Today marks the first day of Florida’s legislative session. To mark the occasion we’ve included the video from our annual Political Preview held live on Zoom last week. Thank you again to our co-host Tucker/Hall and our panelists, Mary Ellen Klas, Jim Saunders and Peter Schorsch. Best wishes to Governor DeSantis and the Legislature for a safe and productive session.

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The Fiorentino Group Names New Principal

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (February 2, 2021) – The Fiorentino Group (TFG) today announced that it has named Davis Bean as a principal with the government relations and business development firm.

Bean utilizes his skills in legislative affairs and policy development to create strategies to assist TFG clients with appropriations, agriculture, local governmental matters, economic development and education issues. He also aids in development and implementation of the firm’s strategic marketing activities.

“I am so pleased that Davis is taking the next step in his career as a leader within our firm,” said TFG President and Founder Marty Fiorentino. “He is a smart and talented advocate who has delivered outstanding results for our clients. I look forward to watching him continue to grow as one of Florida’s leading public affairs professionals.”

Davis Bean has been named a principal at The Fiorentino Group.

Bean got his start in politics in Polk County, serving as campaign manager for State Senator Kelli Stargel. Prior to joining TFG, Bean served as the top aide to State Representative Cord Byrd. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a master’s degree in Management from the Warrington School of Business at the University of Florida. While at UF, Bean was tapped into Florida Blue Key, the oldest and most prestigious leadership honorary in the State of Florida. Prior to graduation he was inducted into the University of Florida Hall of Fame for outstanding commitment to improving the University of Florida. Recently, Bean was named as a “Rising Star” in Florida politics by Influence Magazine.

About The Fiorentino Group (TFG): TFG is a full-service government relations and business development firm with offices in Jacksonville and Tallahassee. The firm provides a broad range of consulting services to Fortune 500 companies and other highly regarded organizations looking to influence public policy and create new business opportunities. Founded in 2002, we are distinguished by our unparalleled relationships with decision-makers, our work in complex issues and our more than 50 years of combined experience in state, local and federal government relations. For more information, please visit www.thefiorentinogroup.com.

Media Contact:
John Finotti, Tucker/Hall
904-493-5006 (office)
904-891-3867 (mobile)
[email protected]

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The Fiorentino Group Names New Partners

(From l-r) Tammy LeMaster and Tiffany McKinley Fiorentino Group Names New Partners

(From l-r) Tammy LeMaster and Tiffany McKinley are now shareholders at The Fiorentino Group.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (May 21, 2020) – The Fiorentino Group (TFG) today announced that chief operations officer Tammy LeMaster and vice president Tiffany McKinley have been named partners and shareholders in the government relations and business development firm.

Founded in 2002, TFG provides a broad range of consulting services to clients looking to influence public policy and create new business opportunities, with decades of experience in state, local, and federal government relations and new business development. The firm represents a wide array of clients at all levels of government, including transportation, healthcare, telecommunications, education, nonprofits, and development and construction interests, among others.

“I cannot think of more dedicated and better friends to have as partners. The professionalism and integrity they bring to our clients and the firm is exceptional. Tammy and Tiffany bring years of experience managing the firm’s operations and development, without which our growth and success would not have been possible. I look forward to continuing to work side by side with them for years to come,” said TFG President and Founder Marty Fiorentino.

LeMaster and McKinley join Fiorentino and principals Joe Mobley and Mark Pinto, Jr. as shareholders in TFG.

Tammy LeMaster has been with TFG since its founding and is responsible for all operating and financial aspects of the firm. She provides guidance and leadership on all operational and financial aspects of the firm. She currently serves as Director of Finance and Operations for D’Alessandro Inc., a national non-profit fundraising consulting business.

“As someone who has been with TFG from the very beginning, this is an exciting time for the firm and for me,” said LeMaster. “Our reputation for excellence in government affairs and business development is unmatched, and I am thrilled to be a part of the next generation of the firm’s leadership.”

Tiffany McKinley joined TFG in 2006 following a White House internship and service in Governor Jeb Bush’s administration. She provides support to the lobbying team and its clients by managing firm issues and priorities, including client relations, business development and legislative activities. Throughout her time with the firm, Tiffany has developed a unique understanding of state policy and appropriations, as well as the state budget.

“The team at The Fiorentino Group is second to none.  We have a long list of accomplishments on behalf of our clients, and I’m proud to be part of such an amazing, results-driven company.  I’m excited to take the next step with the firm and continue building our business while delivering successful results for our clients,” said McKinley.

About The Fiorentino Group (TFG): TFG is a full-service government relations and business development firm with offices in Jacksonville and Tallahassee.  The firm provides a broad range of consulting services to Fortune 500 companies and other highly regarded organizations looking to influence public policy and create new business opportunities. Founded in 2002, we are distinguished by our unparalleled relationships with decision-makers, our work in complex issues and our more than 50 years of combined experience in state, local and federal government relations. For more information, please visit www.thefiorentinogroup.com.

Media Contact:

John Finotti, Tucker/Hall

904-493-5006 (office)

904-891-3867 (mobile)

[email protected]

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TFG’s 2020 Legislative Session Wrap Up

The Fiorentino Group

Florida lawmakers officially wrapped up the 2020 legislative session Thursday afternoon. Despite getting off to a fairly typical start, the final two weeks of session were definitely ones for the history books, with a late budget conference that ultimately stretched over two separate weekends, members sparring over divisive policy and appropriations issues, and session being extended nearly a full week to meet state budget process requirements. Not surprisingly, efforts during the final weeks of session were consumed with the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, and the impending impacts of the pandemic to the state and the nation as a whole. This has not been an easy matter for members to address. There is still more unknown than known about this virus. At this time, no one can predict the extent of its impact, and in the final days of session, lawmakers were faced with trying to determine how to allocate necessary state funding to adequately meet the response statewide, as well as meet the needs of the people and businesses of Florida – whatever those needs may ultimately be.

Session efforts culminated with final budget votes Thursday, followed by a press conference with Governor DeSantis, Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) and House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Hialeah). While leaders kept it light, with each expressing gratitude for the leadership of the others in what ended up being a tough session, there was undoubtedly an undertone of uncertainty about what is to come. At this point, no one can rule out the possibility of an eventual return to Tallahassee to readdress state funding and spending matters as the full impact of this pandemic plays out in Florida and around the world.


Session Focus

Lawmakers kicked off the session as scheduled in January, with members following the recent policy of meeting two months earlier than usual during election years. While legislators attempted to get an early start on the budget as well, it became clear in the final weeks of session that the process had stalled. This was initially due to differences in leadership priorities, but ultimately became a result of the current global pandemic. Once members were ready to set allocations and move forward with crafting a budget, the process became completely overshadowed by what had once been a threat and was now a reality. COVID-19 had reached the State of Florida.

There were some bills that members worked on extensively but ultimately did not pass through the chaotic end of session, including a school safety package and a sweeping higher education proposal. Members did, however, pass substantive measures relating to school choice in Florida, a system for combatting illegal immigration, two key health care measures, and comprehensive environmental regulation bills, among other measures. With regard to the budget, members began budget conference the weekend of March 7, but didn’t complete their efforts on the state spending plan until this past Sunday evening. Due to a required 72-hour “cooling off period,” members had to wait to take a final vote once the budget was completed. As a result, while all policy matters were completed by the scheduled end time on Friday, March 13, members had to extend the session end date by nearly one week, reconvening in Tallahassee on Thursday to make a final vote on the budget and officially end the 2020 legislative session.


Leadership

Governor DeSantis began the session with a very high approval rating, at more than 60 percent. His priorities for session included a sweeping plan to increase teacher salaries in Florida, labeling 2020 as the “Year of the Teacher.” Both the House and Senate gave tepid support to the proposal early in the process, although legislative leaders had different ideas for how to provide the boost in compensation. The Governor also pushed for continued increased spending on land conservation and water quality projects, maintaining his commitment to provide record funding for Florida’s environmental programs during his first term as Governor. In addition, he has been a strong proponent of utilizing the controversial E-Verify system as a method to combat illegal immigration – an issue that would be one of the biggest and most debated of the 2020 legislative session – and ultimately saw success. Overall, despite the session wrapping up on a dark note under the shadow of COVID-19, the Governor was seen as a strong leader and had a largely successful session, with many of his policy and appropriations priorities successfully passed.

On the legislative side, President Galvano opened session with the call for a civil process between lawmakers, rather than setting an agenda for session. However, some of his priorities included school safety legislation, gaming, and increased regulation of firearms in Florida. While the school safety legislation ultimately died and lawmakers had little appetite for gun bills, President Galvano’s longtime and key priority – comprehensive gaming expansion in Florida – certainly cannot be ruled out at this point. There has been talk in recent weeks about a potential special session to pass a gaming measure. That may be more possible now than ever as the state looks at an increased need for revenue.

This year, Speaker Oliva remained focused on keeping Florida’s health care market competitive and transparent, and once again saw the success of two of his biggest health care priorities – expanding the scope of practice for Florida’s nurse practitioners and pharmacists. While these issues were heavily discussed and debated during the final days of session, once passed they were fast-tracked through the Governor’s bill signing process, with both measures already signed into law and set to go into effect on July 1, 2020.


2020-2021 State Budget

Florida House and Senate members convened in Tallahassee Thursday to make a final vote on the 2020-2021 state budget, with both chambers in unanimous support of the spending plan. After an initial delay in allocations in the final weeks of session – due to disagreements over leadership priorities, including Visit Florida, gaming and the Speaker’s health care proposals – the COVID-19 issue complicated things even further, throwing budget discussions into a spiral and leaving members to decide on an appropriate spending plan while also setting aside funds for an uncertain future. This past Sunday, members officially completed a $93.2 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2020-2021. The updated spending plan was revised late in the process to place around $300 million in state reserves in effort to prepare for the impending economic slowdown due to the current pandemic.

In addition to allocating the reserve funds, the budget passed by legislators for the coming year provides nearly $23 billion for K-12 education, including $500 million for increased teacher salaries – meeting the Governor’s call to increase the base teacher salary in Florida to $47,500 – as well as an increase in per-student spending. Of the funding passed for teacher pay, $400 million is allocated to increase the base salary, while the remaining $100 million will be used to ensure veteran teachers see increases in pay as well, a main concern of educator advocates during the session. In addition, lawmakers provided more than $350 million for Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) projects. The funds are utilized by K-12 public schools, including charter schools, as well as public higher education institutions, for construction projects. Other higher education spending includes $15 million for the new Universities of Distinction program to highlight Florida’s nine pre-eminent universities.

The health care budget passed by lawmakers totals more than $39 billion, including $25 million for the Governor to utilize to combat the COVID-19 crisis, as well as more than $27 million in federal funds for other efforts relating to the pandemic. Members also came to terms on the controversial Visit Florida program, which will now be extended for an additional three years. Lawmakers provided an allocation of $50 million for the agency during the coming year. In addition, lawmakers allocated $690 million for water quality projects and $100 million for Florida Forever, the state’s land-buying program.

The 2020-2021 spending plan also includes a tax package totaling nearly $48 million, which members hope will boost money in reserves to prepare for future economic fallout. The original tax package was comprehensive and contained sweeping tax cuts to commercial real estate leases, aviation fuel tax and the communications services tax (CST), among others. The measure – which became one of the more contentious issues this session – was heavily amended between the two chambers and, at one point, totaled more than $230 million. What ultimately passed was a trimmed down plan that only includes direct-to-consumer relief like sales tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and hurricane preparation, but makes no cuts to the CST, commercial leases, aviation fuel tax, or other corporate taxes.


Legislative Initiatives

E-Verify

This controversial priority of Governor DeSantis was a key topic discussed and debated this session. While the original proposal would have required all businesses in Florida to utilize the E-Verify system to verify employee eligibility to work in the United States, what passed was a much different and much more scaled down measure. After divisive debate among House and Senate members, legislators ultimately passed a measure that provides an option for employers to utilize E-Verify, or keep three years of records of documents used by employees when federal forms are completed. The bill also allows the Governor’s office to randomly audit businesses to make sure employee verification is taking place.

K-12 Education

Governor DeSantis made K-12 education his top priority this session, seeing successful funding of his call for increased base salaries for Florida teachers while also calling for expansion of school choice and state vouchers programs. In addition to teacher pay, members expanded Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, adding around 10,000 students to the current total.

While the topic of school security has been at the forefront of education policy in Florida since the tragic Parkland shooting in 2018, members could not bring a comprehensive school safety measure to the finish line this session. The issue was outlined as a priority for President Galvano, with proposals to implement some of the recommendations of the Commission created after the tragedy in 2018. Members did, however, pass legislation to create a statewide panic alert system for Florida schools – a measure named for a victim of the Parkland Massacre.

There were also other education measures that did not see final passage this session, including a divisive proposal to allow voters to decide on eight-year term limits for school board members in districts throughout the state.

Higher Education

This year, Speaker Oliva called for comprehensive higher education reform, expressing concerns about spending practices at state colleges and universities and pledging to closely review and update spending on state scholarship programs. What resulted from the Speaker’s pledge was a higher education package that proposed to upend many aspects of the state’s current system. The proposal, sponsored by House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) aimed to merge the state’s two newest public universities into bigger state schools, with the original bill merging New College of Florida with Florida State University and rolling Florida Polytechnic University in with the University of Florida. The proposal was then amended to merge both new schools into the University of Florida before being dropped altogether due to lack of support in the Senate. Chairman Fine also proposed updating some of the state’s scholarship programs for private schools, including tying the Effective Access to Student Education (EASE) program to income, eliminating about 65 percent of current recipients. This proposal was highly controversial and also died without passage due to lack of support in the Senate.

Members did pass legislation to allow Florida’s college athletes to receive compensation for their name, image and likeness, following suit of other states in opposition to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (“NCAA”) longtime ban on such endorsements. However, the legislation will not go into effect until 2021, giving the NCAA time to implement its own policy.

Health Care

Two of Speaker Oliva’s biggest session priorities – in his effort to combat what he calls the “health care industrial complex” in Florida – were successfully passed this session. Although the measures initially held up the budget conference process as leaders worked to barter and negotiate, ultimately the bill to allow Florida’s nurse practitioners to practice independently of doctors, and the bill to allow pharmacists to test and treat patients for the flu and strep were approved by both chambers and have already been signed into law by Governor DeSantis.

Members also passed a fast-tracked measure early in session to prohibit minors from obtaining an abortion in Florida without parental consent. That measure still needs to be sent to the Governor for his approval.

Marijuana

This year, once again, House members worked to establish a limit on the level of THC allowed in medical cannabis products in the state – a priority on the House side since 2018, when members repealed the ban on smoking medical marijuana. This year’s proposal met the same fate as last year’s measure, and ultimately died due to lack of support in the Senate.

Energy and Environmental Issues

Governor DeSantis remained focused this year on continued increased funding for environmental programs, including water quality and land conservation, and measures to set stronger pollution rules and increase penalties when sewage is spilled into state waterways. Lawmakers again met the Governor’s call both with funding and with policy, passing several measures to increase penalties for violations of environmental laws and implement numerous provisions relating to water quality in Florida.

Members also considered controversial proposals to provide the Governor with more power over state agencies, including transferring the Office of Energy from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to the Department of Environmental Protection, moving control over state energy policy from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried to the Governor. In addition, members considered controversial language to change the way the state’s DEP Secretary is appointed. Both measures failed this session.

Transportation

Every session members consider comprehensive transportation legislation that often ends up being heavily amended throughout the committee process, to the point it’s often referred to as a “transportation train.” This year’s bill included numerous provisions relating to high speed rail, airports, the state’s “Move Over Law,” the debt service cap on bonds for certain transportation projects, and child restraint laws, among numerous other provisions. Ultimately, as often happens, the bill became too bogged down and died without final passage through the session process.

Gaming

The topic of expanding gaming in Florida has been a long-debated one over the past several years, and has remained a high priority of Senate President Galvano. The issue was again on the table this session. However, once again the two chambers could not come to terms on a gaming proposal, particularly in the final weeks of session as so many new and critical issues came to the forefront.

However, leaders have not ruled out the possibility of members coming back for a special session to address the gaming issue, as the state works to negotiate an updated deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. This issue has been on a constant rollercoaster for several years. With the current deal proposed to the Tribe having the potential to net the state around $500 million each year, this issue is far from over, particularly as the state prepares for a significant economic slowdown and revenue shortfall. This was expressed by President Galvano during his post-session press statements on Thursday.


Going Forward

All eyes remain on state and federal leaders as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shut down every part of the country. Its impact is currently being felt statewide, particularly in South Florida, which seems to be the hardest hit area of the state at this point. Governor DeSantis remains a strong state leader through this time, declaring a State of Emergency and taking new steps each day to stop the outbreak and allow health care officials to address the virus without being overrun.

Through all of this, the state’s legislative process will continue, with a total of 210 bills passed this session that will need action before the new fiscal year begins on July 1, which is when many new bills are set to take effect. At this time, the Governor has signed nine bills into law. Two bills are procedural and have been filed with the Secretary of State. The remaining 199 bills are still being finalized and prepared for sending to the Governor. These include the 2020-2021 state budget and budget implementing bill.

Once the Governor receives a bill, he has a total of 15 days to either sign it into law, veto it, or let it become law without his action. The budget is the only piece of legislation over which the Governor has line-item veto power. There is currently much uncertainty surrounding the budget. Many anticipate the vetoes will be significant this year given the likelihood of an economic slowdown or even a potential budget crisis as the result of COVID-19.

Our team is working continuously with state policy and budget leaders on session issues of importance for our clients. We will keep you up to date as matters progress, and will work closely with lawmakers as members explore the potential of possible special sessions to address budget matters and a potential gaming proposal.

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The Fiorentino Group Names New Partners

The Fiorentino Group

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (February 19, 2020) – The Fiorentino Group (TFG) today announced that longtime principals Joe Mobley and Mark Pinto Jr. have become partners in the government relations and business development firm.

Founded in 2002, TFG has years of experience in local, state and national politics, as well as in the private sector.  The firm represents a wide array of clients at all levels of government, including transportation, healthcare, telecommunications, education, nonprofits and development and construction interests, among others.

“Joe and Mark are trusted advisors to me and our clients,” said TFG President and Founder Marty Fiorentino.  “They are highly regarded in our profession.  I cannot think of two more qualified people to have as partners.  The professionalism and integrity they bring to our clients and the firm is exceptional.  I look forward to continuing to work side by side with them for years to come.”

Active in both the Jacksonville and Tallahassee offices, Mobley brings more than 17 years of state government and legislative experience to TFG. Prior to joining TFG, Mobley served as Assistant Vice President of Legislative Affairs at Fidelity National Financial, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Jacksonville where he was part of a team responsible for the company’s legislative and political agenda throughout the United States and Washington, DC.

The Fiorentino Group Names New Partners

From left to right – TFG President Marty Fiorentino, TFG Partner Joe Mobley and TFG Partner Mark Pinto

“This is an exciting time for me and my family,” said Mobley.  “Becoming a shareholder means personally investing in a firm I’ve long believed in and I couldn’t be more proud.  I look forward to the future and growing our business with the results and integrity we’ve become known for.”

Pinto has experience in a variety of sectors including healthcare, gaming, medical marijuana, education, transportation, local government, economic development, tourism, professional sports leagues, private development, environment and real estate.  With more than 10 years at TFG, Mark advises, advocates on behalf of and manages projects for local, state, national and international clients. Mark has been recognized by the Jacksonville Business Journal as one of Jacksonville’s 40 Under 40 top young professionals.

“Joe and I are excited to help continue the legacy of success that TFG has brought to clients throughout the State of Florida,” Pinto said. “We will work hard to ensure The Fiorentino Group remains one of the best and most recognized government affairs and business development firms in Florida.”

About The Fiorentino Group (TFG): TFG is a full-service government relations and business development firm with offices in Jacksonville and Tallahassee.  The firm provides a broad range of consulting services to Fortune 500 companies and other highly regarded organizations looking to influence public policy and create new business opportunities. Founded in 2002, we are distinguished by our unparalleled relationships with decision-makers, our work in complex issues and our more than 50 years of combined experience in state, local and federal government relations. For more information, please visit www.thefiorentinogroup.com.

Media Contact:

John Finotti, Tucker/Hall

904-493-5006 (office)

904-891-3867 (mobile)

[email protected]

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2020 Legislative Session Kick-Off

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.

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.

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TFG Employee News

TFG Employee News The Fiorentino Group logo

In TFG Employee News, we are pleased to share two updates about our team.  Davis Bean has been promoted to Government Affairs Consultant in our Jacksonville office. In his new role, Bean will utilize his skills in legislative affairs and policy development to create strategies to assist TFG clients with appropriations, local governmental matters, economic development, and education issues.

TFG Employee News Davis Bean

Melissa Langley has returned to the firm as Community Relations and Political Director. In her new role, Langley is responsible for managing TFG’s political fundraising efforts, planning special events for the firm and engaging with the local community.

TFG Employee News Melissa Langley

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TFG President Marty Fiorentino Speaks at PDCA International Conference and Expo

Th Fiorentino Group

TFG President Marty Fiorentino recently had the honor of serving as the keynote speaker at the 22nd Annual Pile Driving Contractors Association (PDCA) International Conference and Expo. Titled “Legislation and Advocacy in our Industry: Are You At The Table Or On The Menu?”, the presentation delved into the importance of being politically involved as a business or association.

“Governments and regulators are among the stakeholders with the biggest economic impact on companies,” said Fiorentino.  “Therefore, companies and industries should engage with governments and regulators proactively and regularly.  A strong government relations program can make industry winners and losers.  Don’t be on the menu, be at the table when government decision are being made.”

Marty Fiorentino speaking

“The construction marketplace is highly competitive with tight margins, especially during strong economic times,” said Frank Peters, Executive Director of the PDCA. “When a company is heavily involved in the bidding and building process, it’s easy to overlook the critical influences that the government can place on the construction industry through actions like municipal ordinances, state-level initiatives and even transformational Federal Acts such as an anticipated transportation re-authorization. Marty Fiorentino gave a thought provoking and eye-opening presentation to our PDCA members about the challenges our businesses face when they don’t pay attention to the policy developments that continuously reshape the playing field for the construction industry. It is clear that his insights made an impact on our members who attended his presentation.”

The PDCA is an organization of pile driving contractors that advocates the increased use of driven piles for deep foundations and earth retention systems. For more information, visit piledrivers.org.