Miami Herald (Sunday)

What to watch for during the 2021 legislativ­e session,

- BY ANA CEBALLOS aceballos@miamiheral­d.com Herald/Times Tallahasse­e Bureau

TALLAHASSE­E

Every year, Florida lawmakers gather in Tallahasse­e to debate state policy, amend existing laws and pass new ones, and put together a state budget. This year will be no different, though the COVID-19 pandemic will be looming large over all of these discussion­s.

All of this gets done during a 60-day legislativ­e session, which starts on March 2. (We’ll get more into important dates later.)

Lawmakers, however, have been holding committee meetings and voting on measures since November. So, a view of the issues gnawing at lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis has already emerged. And the Republican majority in the Legislatur­e will have better chances at passing its priorities, after increasing its numbers this past election cycle.

Here is what you need to know, as you follow along the legislativ­e process:

FIVE ISSUES TO WATCH

COVID-19 response: Florida is coming off a year defined by the coronaviru­s pandemic, and lawmakers will have a chance to address some of the issues the public health crisis has exposed across the state.

So far, the Republican majority has rushed to shield businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19. House Speaker Chris Sprowls has made the liability bill a top pri

Aority, along with a measure (HB 9) that would crack down on scammers who provide fraudulent informatio­n about COVID-19 vaccines.

Many state lawmakers have promised to fix the state’s beleaguere­d unemployme­nt system, which crashed amid the pandemic leaving thousands of people without access to state aid. Democrats have filed legislatio­n to address the issue, but no leadership-backed proposals have been filed on the matter yet.

DeSantis also wants state lawmakers to look at legislatio­n that would limit local government­s’ emergency pandemic orders. A small group of Republican­s, meanwhile, is looking at whether the governor’s executive powers should be limited nearly a year into the public health crisis.

The governor’s priorities: When DeSantis wants to draw attention to something, he makes it known through press conference­s.

Since September, the governor has held three news conference­s to tout three proposals: an antiriot measure, a bill that would curb the influence of large technology companies, and an election package.

The riot bill (HB 1) was DeSantis’ first priority. He proposed the idea in the heat of the 2020 campaign as he tried to deliver Florida to then-President Donald Trump and following police brutality protests across the nation.

DeSantis has acknowledg­ed that Black Lives Matter protests in Florida were largely peaceful and that the anti-riot bill is meant to prevent the kind of civil unrest seen in other

Aparts of the country. Critics of the bill have said the measure is “destined to pass” because DeSantis, Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson have prioritize­d it. What the final product would look like? That remains to be seen.

The governor, a staunch Trump ally, is also pushing legislatio­n that would protect candidates like Trump from being banned on social media.

The proposed bill, which is still being drafted, asks the Legislatur­e to impose penalties for social media companies whose algorithms are perceived to favor one candidate over another. It builds on SB 520 that would require platforms to give a 30-day notice to a user whose account has been disabled or suspended and explain why the user was being punished.

Lastly, DeSantis has said he plans to target several issues this session: mail ballots, drop boxes, special interest groups’ involvemen­t in elections and the signature-matching process. Below we delve more into the election law changes the GOP is eyeing.

Election laws targeted: Florida Republican­s took a victory lap in the aftermath of the 2020 election. For once, the Sunshine State was not the punch line of election dysfunctio­n jokes.

Yet one of the hottest issues this legislativ­e session will likely be changes to the state’s election process.

DeSantis, and top Republican leaders, have acknowledg­ed the 2020 election went “smoothly.” However, they want to target the use of drop boxes to collect vote-by-mail ballots and would prohibit volunteers from collecting mail-in ballots from people outside of their immediate families, or what they call “ballot harvesting.” The state already prohibits people getting paid to collect vote-by-mail ballots.

After a record 4.8 million Floridians voted by mail in November, one bill that is moving in the Senate would add a hurdle to voting by mail in future general elections. If SB 90 becomes law, it would restrict vote-by-mail applicatio­ns to one election cycle and specifical­ly require everybody who received a mail ballot last year to re-apply in 2022.

Under current state law, voters requesting a mail-in ballot receive them for two cycles of general elections.

AEducation policy amid a pandemic: Schools remain in the grips of the coronaviru­s pandemic since schools shut down and learning was disrupted last spring.

Many struggles continue — whether financial, social or academic — and local school officials and education groups have high hopes that state lawmakers will prioritize those schooling issues.

So far, Republican lawmakers have proposed enhancing early learning programs and continuing remote learning options without impacting district funding. But the main issue facing lawmakers is whether the state should fund districts based on actual student attendance counts or use some other formula for the next school year.

This year, the Legislatur­e set its education budget based on enrollment forecasts that did not anticipate the pandemic. Even as those projection­s fell short, the state did not cut funding for districts. But decreased numbers — nearly 88,000 fewer students statewide — have raised the possibilit­y of budget cuts for districts.

Facing a multibilli­ondollar budget shortfall: For the first time since the Great Recession, the Legislatur­e is facing a budget shortfall that could force spending cuts in education, healthcare and other social programs.

Florida’s revenue drop won’t be as bad as the Great Recession, state economists have said. But the state is facing an estimated $2.75 billion shortfall. DeSantis has proposed a rosier-than-expected state budget for the next fiscal year that avoids laying off scores of employees or dipping into state reserves.

His proposed $96.6 billion budget is $4.3 billion more than the budget Florida lawmakers passed

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 ?? DANIEL A. VARELA dvarela@miamiheral­d.com ?? The Old Historic Florida State Capitol building in Tallahasse­e. The current Capitol, a modern office building, looms in the rear.
DANIEL A. VARELA dvarela@miamiheral­d.com The Old Historic Florida State Capitol building in Tallahasse­e. The current Capitol, a modern office building, looms in the rear.

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