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.