Miami Herald (Sunday)

Lawmakers convene with COVID changes, familiar GOP agenda

- BY LAWRENCE MOWER, MARY ELLEN KLAS, ANA CEBALLOS AND KIRBY WILSON lmower@tampabay.com meklas@miamiheral­d.com aceballos@miamiheral­d.com kwilson@miamiheral­d.com Herald/Times Tallahasse­e Bureau

The Republican Party’s decisive majority in the Florida Legislatur­e will be evident when the session convenes March 2 amid many changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

TALLAHASSE­E

Florida’s 40 senators and 120 representa­tives will convene Tuesday in Tallahasse­e for one of the strangest legislativ­e sessions in the Capitol’s history.

Lobbyists won’t be roaming the halls, seeking out lawmakers to cajole and persuade. The public won’t be packed into committee rooms to protest controvers­ial bills. Most (not all) will be wearing masks.

But while the surroundin­gs will be different, the agenda, advanced by the Republican­s who control the Legislatur­e, might not be. During the last two months, GOP legislator­s haven’t introduced bills addressing the unemployme­nt crisis or questioned how Gov. Ron DeSantis has spent $5.8 billion in federal pandemic relief dollars or probed the performanc­e of state agencies during the last year. Instead, their committees have worked quickly to advance conservati­ve DeSantis priorities that have little to do with average Floridians, including a controvers­ial antiriot bill, measures that crack down on “Big Tech” companies and bills that prevent businesses from being sued for spreading COVID-19.

“To the victor go the spoils,

and they’re going for it,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Plantation, who leads the Senate Democrats, a minority that can do little to stop GOP legislatio­n.

Yet the new leader of the Florida Senate, Wilton Simpson, a Republican egg farmer and businessma­n from Trilby, cautions patience.

“I would wait and judge us based on what actually gets done,” he said.

Over the next 60 days, Simpson said he expects a robust overhaul of the state’s unemployme­nt system, including potentiall­y raising the state’s meager $275 weekly benefit, which hasn’t been increased in decades. He also expects his committees to look into the billions the state has spent combating the pandemic.

But state lawmakers, emboldened by decisive Republican electoral victories last year in Florida, are also using the pandemic and the recent social unrest as an opportunit­y to advance a conservati­ve agenda they’ve been seeking for years.

MORE SCHOOL CHOICE

Sen. Manny Diaz, RHialeah, is proposing legislatio­n (SB 48) that would bring to Florida what many advocates consider to be the Holy Grail in the school choice movement: education savings accounts for students.

The proposal would allow families to dip into taxpayer-backed education savings accounts to pay for children’s private tuition, tutoring, therapy or even college savings, and it could trigger a massive shifting of money from public schools to private.

Diaz says the pandemic has highlighte­d the need for school choice.

“A lot of parents want to have more flexibilit­y” after the pandemic as kids were shifted to remote learning, said Diaz. “I think this goes with our theme of continuing to move toward individual attention to the student.”

MORE GIVEAWAYS TO CORPORATIO­NS

Rather than focus on aid to individual­s, the legislativ­e response so far has been to cater to the needs of employers and industry.

“A job is inextricab­ly intertwine­d with the employer who’s providing the job,’’ said Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, who chairs the House Pandemic and Public Emergencie­s Committee. “If you’re going to lift the economy, which we all think we need to do right now, Republican or Democrat, there have to be places for people to go to work. By protecting one you raise all.”

The focus on protecting employers is the justificat­ion legislativ­e leaders have provided for scores of bills either written by industries or designed to protect them, including:

Natural gas: SB 856/HB 839, part of a national campaign by the natural gas industry, would prevent local government­s from limiting greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.

Cruise ships: SB 426 attempts to overturn an initiative approved in November by more than 60% of Key West voters that imposes limits on cruise ships docking in the city and bans cruise ships with a capacity of more than 1,300 people from docking there. It also limits the number of cruise visitors who can disembark each day to 1,500.

Sugar: SB 88 would undercut a class-action suit against the sugar industry over air pollution caused by sugar field burning.

Restaurant­s: SB 148 would make the governor’s emergency law that allows restaurant­s to sell cocktailst­o-go a permanent law.

Businesses: HB 7 and SB 72 would shield companies, government­s and individual­s from lawsuits related to COVID-19, a priority of leaders including House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.

“Businesses have done a fantastic job of trying to keep their customer safe, of trying to keep their employees safe,” Sprowls told reporters recently. “What they need is some reassuranc­e that something that they couldn’t possibly account for was not going to take them off guard and devastate their livelihood.”

MEDICAID EXPANSION? ‘NO.’

The scope of Medicaid is a perennial issue in the Legislatur­e, with Democrats clamoring for the state to expand the program. They argue the benefits far outweigh the cost — the federal government would pick up 90% of the tab, and hundreds of thousands of poor Floridians would gain health coverage.

Republican­s argue even 10% of what could be a multibilli­on-dollar expansion is too pricey, and that Medicaid does not provide enough insurance to justify the cost.

The fight is always a big deal because the cost of Medicaid amounts to about a third of all Florida government spending. And that’s just the state’s share of the program: The feds also chip in tens of billions of dollars.

Despite seeing 826,000 more Floridians sign up for Medicaid since the pandemic, however, Republican leaders have so far shown no appetite for expanding the program.

When asked at a news conference last week whether the state Senate would consider expanding the program, Simpson said simply: “No.”

RED MEAT FOR THE CONSERVATI­VE BASE

DeSantis has made his priorities clear and one measure in particular — an anti-riot bill — is expected to draw tense and emotional debate this session.

DeSantis, Sprowls and Simpson have all backed bills that would crack down on what they have termed “violent agitators.” The governor first proposed the idea last September, after police brutality protests arose in South Florida, Tampa Bay and across the

United States.

The proposal would create tougher penalties for crimes that already exist simply because a person was part of a group. Critics worry the proposed criminal enhancemen­ts would disproport­ionately impact communitie­s of color and aggravate community distrust of police.

The measure also puts a bull’s-eye on local government’s authority to determine police budgets. Any resident under the proposal would be able to appeal a local government budget decision tied to police. It is in response to protesters’ calls to “defund the police.”

Democrats have accused DeSantis and Republican leaders of trying to “rebrand” the issue by filing legislatio­n immediatel­y after the Jan. 6 violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. DeSantis said the bills were filed that night because there was “no time to waste to uphold public safety” in light of the siege at the Capitol.

NEW REVENUE SOURCES — AND CUTTING OTHER PROGRAMS

Raising taxes has been anathema for Republican­s for decades. That’s helped kill efforts in past years to collect sales taxes from all online retailers, although it’s not a tax increase.

This year, with a budget that could end up billions of dollars short of projection­s if more federal help doesn’t arrive as expected, lawmakers are considerin­g finally requiring companies to collect those sales taxes, like Florida law currently does for larger online retailers such as Amazon.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are continuing to try to crack down on labor unions and cut off new entrants into the state’s pension system. The pension proposal would require new state, county and local government employees enroll in a 401(k)-style “investment” plan, rather than a pension system.

Both proposals are adamantly opposed by Democrats and labor unions, which have successful­ly fought off similar proposals in past years.

“It’s looking pretty rough for the people of Florida,” said Rich Templin, a 20year lobbyist for the AFLCIO. “If you have a very big, influentia­l lobbyist here in Tallahasse­e, you’re probably doing OK.”

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