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Florida Lawmakers Send $91.1 Billion Budget To DeSantis To End Legislative Session

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In a rare weekend convening, Florida lawmakers wrapped up their 2019 session Saturday by enacting a $91.1 billion budget for the coming year — a budget that Gov. Ron DeSantis hinted he may trim with his veto pen.

Though partisan rancor flared during the session over issues including arming teachers and restoring voting rights to released felons, the final day was mostly a round of back-pats and nods to bipartisanship. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, reached across the aisle telling Democrats, “The truth is, the political process requires that tension of ideas, that back-and-forth pressure.”

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, declared it “very, very successful” and told the chamber’s members, “You made every last day count.”

The session will be remembered for what passed. That included a much-disputed bill allowing classroom teachers in public schools to carry firearms, and another expanding police authority to pull over motorists for texting. Just as important is what didn’t pass including bills that would have legalized recreational marijuana smoking and banned the practice of extracting natural gas through “fracking.”

Although nearly 3,500 bills were filed this legislative session, the House and Senate managed to send just 197 to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

At least 66 lawmakers were new to the Capitol after the November election. So were the governor and his cabinet. Despite partisan challenges and empty House seats in crucial districts, including the one hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, here is what was accomplished this session:

The legislature passed a $91.1 billion budget.

Florida will be spending more on education and the environment this fiscal year.

The Legislature passed the state’s $91.1 billion budget, which is $2.4 billion more than last year and would take effect July 1. Cleanup funds for polluted waterways and per-student spending in K-12 schools received big increases. The state will spend less on land acquisition and on Visit Florida, a tourism promotion organization.

The Legislature also cut general operating spending for state universities. After the University of Central Florida came under fire for misspent funds, furious lawmakers considered holding back on appropriations, and even threatened to shut UCF down. House budget chair Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Orange Park, brought up the controversy over UCF’s unauthorized reallocation of state money during Saturday’s budget discussion, saying that lawmakers “easily could have” targeted UCF for reprisal in the budget “but I can tell you, they weren’t targeted.”

DeSantis can still line item veto any part of the budget, including any projects allocated for lawmakers’ districts.

The budget deal was finalized late Tuesday night, less than 72 hours from the scheduled end of session. Because Florida law requires a 72-hour “cooling-off period” prior to a final vote on the budget, the session was delayed until Saturday.

The Senate’s $90.3 billion budget plan and the House’s $89.9 billion were less than the $91.3 billion budget DeSantis originally proposed. All are more than the budget for 2018-2019, which is $88.7 billion. Differences between the proposals were hashed out in a joint committee of House and Senate delegates.

The state stripped local governments of several powers including the ability to ban plastic and not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The latest plastic bans in some cities and counties were the last straw for some state lawmakers, who voted to prohibit local governments from enforcing those regulations.

If DeSantis signs the bill, HB 771, local governments will not be able to implement plastic straws bans until July 2024. DeSantis will also decide on a bill, SB 168, that would ban “sanctuary cities,” or municipalities that have policies in place intended to limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. If he signs that, it would take effect July 1.

Majority leader Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said the bill against plastic bans is the right step to creating unified policies statewide.

“While we, the state of Florida, try to stay out of the cities’ and counties’ business as much as possible, and allow them that freedom, when they step out of range, and they begin to impede on the freedoms and liberties of the citizens, it is the state’s duty to step in,” Eagle said.

Lawmakers also considered preempting local laws on short-term vacation rentals such as AirBnb, but the bill died.

More funding will go toward cleaning up Florida’s waters.

Before the legislative session started, DeSantis called for reform, pushing for resignations from South Florida Water Management District board members and promising $625 million of his proposed budget for water projects including Everglades restoration. After a clean sweep of all water board members and new appointments of environmentally focused leadership, DeSantis and his legislators went to work on environmental policy.

Lawmakers easily approved a new Blue-Green Algae Task Force, fulfilling one of DeSantis’ major campaign promises. But they did not warm up to another water-quality proposal, SB 7064, by Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, which would have outlawed the controversial practice of extracting fossil fuels from subterranean stone through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Albritton’s bill died in committee.

The state legalized smokable medical marijuana and an industrial hemp program.

The future for Florida is green. Lawmakers passed legislation that legalized entire sectors of the cannabis industry, spanning its medicinal, industrial and agricultural spheres.

But still far off on Florida’s horizon is recreational use. A bill sponsored by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, never even got a hearing.

However, in March, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure that legalized smokable forms of medical marijuana.

And, in the biggest win for the state’s cannabis industry, the legislature approved an industrial state hemp program. Hemp is an answered prayer for Panhandle farmers devastated by Hurricane Michael in October who are in need of an alternative crop. The industry is expected to draw billions of dollars to the state.

Florida’s newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried strongly backed the legalization bills, and their implementation will be overseen by Fried’s recently appointed cannabis director, Holly Bell, the first to hold that office.

Republicans achieved their goal of creating a new private school voucher program.

A Republican-led bill would create vouchers, called “Family Empowerment Scholarships,” for low income families to spend on private schooling. Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading school-choice advocate who was on the floor when the Senate passed SB 7070, tweeted the encompassing education bill was “historic legislation that will usher in greater educational freedom for Florida families.” The bill also restructures how teachers receive bonuses: Instead of measuring them by their students’ tests scores, the new system would allow school districts to rank teachers by tiers.

Higher education

Lawmakers sent the governor a bill by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, that expands criminal liability for hazing to include those who plan or encourage abusive initiation rituals, and creates a limited “safe harbor” from prosecution for those who participate in hazing but summon emergency medical help for a hazing victim in distress. The bill, SB 1080, is known as “Andrew’s Law” in memory of a 20-year-old Florida State University student who died in 2017 after being coerced to drink a bottle of liquor as part of a fraternity induction.

Arming teachers

Lawmakers added classroom teachers to the list of personnel who can be armed on public school grounds. Both the House and Senate passed the bill to expand the school guardian program, which was created at the tail end of the 2018 legislative session as a part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act after the shooting in Broward County that killed 17 people. The act, SB 7030, requires all districts to install school resource officers on every campus or train some of their personnel to be armed.

The budget also allocated $500,000 to training guardians.

Amendment 4

One of the most divisive bills this legislative session, SB 7066, threw a complication into the process by which ex-felons can regain the right to vote.

In a November 2018 ballot initiative, a majority of Floridians voted ‘yes’ to Amendment 4, which redeemed ex-felons’ right to vote after serving time. But in a Republican-backed twist, ex-felons will first be required to pay all the court-ordered fines and restitution fees related to their sentence before regaining eligibility. Democrats in the legislature denounced the measure as a modern day “poll tax” on the voting booths, an institutional financial obstacle to the right to vote. DeSantis, a known proponent, is expected to sign the bill into law.

Criminal justice reform

A traditionally “tough-on-crime” legislature passed a limited reform bill that is meant to promote rehabilitation and reduce prison crowding, including increasing the threshold to be prosecuted for felony theft to $750, reducing or removing the penalty of lost driving privileges for certain offenses, and establishing an inmate reentry guide. The bill, HB 7125, also makes it easier to obtain expungement of an arrest record if the arrest did not result in a conviction.

But the bill failed to address two major issues advocates have fought for: more gain time and riddance of required sentences for certain charges called mandatory minimums.

The Senate’s version of the bill included an amendment that would have allowed thousands of nonviolent offenders to be released earlier than under the current law. With pressure from the House and DeSantis, the provision was dropped in the final days of session in an effort to get something passed.

The legislature also eliminated a proposal to adjust mandatory minimums for certain drug charges, and instead just abolished a mandatory minimum for selling horse meat.

Property insurance reform

After a six-year debate, the legislature passed a bill that proponents say is intended to stem property insurance claim abuse that has resulted in higher rates.

The “assignment of benefits” measure, HB 7065, would revise Florida’s one-way attorney fee statute, which says an insurer must foot the bill for attorney fees if, during a lawsuit, the insurer is found to have underpaid the claim by any amount.

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jim Patronis touted the bill as a legislative accomplishment in a press release, saying he “constantly urged lawmakers to bring everyone to the table and address out of control abuse of Florida’s Assignment of Benefits (AOB) process to protect consumers from bad actors who look to game the system.”

The bill would take effect July 1, in time for the inevitable property claims after major summer hurricanes. Despite an empty House seat for the district hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, lawmakers prioritized Panhandle recovery in the budget. The $220 million allocated to hurricane relief included $14 million for school districts that were hit by the storm and $25 million for grants to cities and school districts.

Visit Florida

Threatened with elimination, the tourism marketing organization VISIT FLORIDA received a one-year reprieve with enough money to continue operating until June 2020. The extension gives lawmakers a chance to decide in next year’s session whether to abolish the quasi-public corporation, which has been criticized for heavy spending on celebrity sponsorship deals.

The agency was scheduled to end in 2019 if not renewed by lawmakers. A bill, SB 178, to renew the date to 2027 was passed by the Senate but died in the House.

Canadian pills

A bill to allow the importation of Canadian prescription drugs to Florida, HB 19, passed the legislature and is bound for the governor’s desk. The bill’s intent: Florida’s patients will have access to cheaper drugs — eventually.

The measure establishes a Canadian Prescription Drug Importation Program. But eligible drugs would still have to meet rigid U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines. And before the program can move forward, it needs the official “yes” from the federal government, which could take months.

Other miscellaneous bills found passage through the House and Senate chambers during the year’s session as well:

The Aging Programs bill, SB 184 or HB 7019, is an attempt to resolve operational challenges regulating Florida’s hospices, assisted elderly living facilities and more. The bill would take rulemaking responsibilities from the Department of Elder Affairs to give to the agency that is tasked with enforcing the rules, the Agency for Health Care Administration.

The vaping bill, SB 7012 or HB 7027, enforces the ban on vaping in indoor workplaces, as suggested by Amendment 9.

The Corrections bill, SB 7046 or HB 7057, adds prisons as a place people can’t fly drones and lets the state hire 18-year-olds as corrections officers.

The Texting While Driving bill, CS/HB 107, makes texting while driving a primary offense, rather than a secondary one, meaning that police may stop a motorist who is seen using a handheld cellphone even if there is no other basis for the stop. It takes effect July 1.

About Meryl Kornfield

Meryl is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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