The 2021 regular legislative session ended Friday, April 30th. Lawmakers took up and passed a wide range of bills during this 60-day session. Two weeks later, legislators reconvened for a special session on gaming, ending officially on May 21st.
Highlights of the key issues are as follows:
Today, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Florida's first $100 billion budget. Together with increased revenues from sales taxes and real estate transactions, combined with the federal stimulus dollars, the state budget reached this record spending without any tax or fee increases. The 2021-22 budget includes bonuses for teachers, first responders (including law enforcement, firefighters, and corrections officers), salary increases for some state workers, modernization of the state’s unemployment benefits system, additional postpartum services for mothers, continued funding for environmental protection, increased funding for school choice, and additional dollars to serve people with disabilities. The governor also vetoed $1.5 billion in projects, including some of the federal funds. All of the vetoed dollars revert back into the states rainy day fund, bringing the total in reserves to $9.5 billion. The budget goes into effect July 1st.
The governor's April executive order to ban “vaccine passports” in municipalities and businesses was made permanent by lawmakers in SB 2006. Legislators also passed SB 72, a measure aimed at shielding businesses and healthcare providers from frivolous lawsuits related to people getting sick or dying from COVID-19.
SB 90 was a highly controversial bill that supporters say is necessary to increase election security. It includes restrictions on voting by mail and the use of ballot boxes. On the other hand, Democrats contend it is designed to decrease voter participation, comparing it to Jim Crow-era voting requirements.
As one of only two states which had not addressed taxes for out-of-state online retailers, Florida finally passed an “e-fairness” bill this session. The revenue generated by closing this loop-hole—expected to be around $1 billion annually—should offset a cut in the commercial rent tax, which passed simultaneously.
After years of industry food fights inside the Capitol, lawmakers approved SB 54, which would end Florida’s no-fault auto insurance system. If signed, drivers would no longer be required to carry personal-injury protection coverage (commonly known as “PIP”). Drivers would still have to carry bodily-injury coverage. Additionally, lawmakers approved SB 76, which makes various changes to property insurance laws. These include allowing larger annual rate increases for customers of Citizens, preventing contractors from soliciting homeowners to file insurance claims and public insurance adjusters from offering incentives to inspect for roof damage, taking steps to limit fees of attorneys who represent homeowners in lawsuits against insurers, and reducing the time to file claims from three years to two years, with an additional year for supplemental claims.
HB 1 was one of the most controversial bills in the 2021 legislative session. A priority of the governor and House Speaker, this bill aimed to crack down on unlawful and dangerous rioting, allegedly in response to the January 6th Capitol riots. Opponents argued the legislation is racist and meant to intimidate law-abiding citizens exercising their right to peacefully protest.
Social Media De-Platforming
SB 7072, a priority of the governor, bars social media companies from removing political candidates from their platforms and includes severe financial penalties for doing so. Opponents to the bill felt it was unnecessary and obtrusive.
SB 1028 started off as a bill relating to charter schools, but quickly became an education “train.” Tucked inside the bill in the final moments of session was an amendment to prohibit transgender female athletes from competing in high-school and college women’s sports teams. This issue was previously inside a stand-alone bill and was thought to be dead in the Senate. Supporters believe it is an issue of fairness, while opponents say the bill is unnecessary and, moreover, sends a dangerous message to LGBTQ+ youth and young adults.
Republicans once again took steps to expand and restructure the state’s school choice scholarship programs inside HB 7045. Changes include combining the McKay and Gardiner Scholarships, raising the income threshold for income-based scholarships, and moving some programs toward a state-funded versus tax-credit funding model. Additionally, lawmakers passed legislation on civics, literacy, and workforce development. The Senate considered major reforms to the lottery-funded Bright Futures scholarship program, but ultimately backed off after significant public opposition.
One week before the regular session was set to adjourn, Gov. DeSantis announced a signed compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe to expand gaming in Florida. However, due to concern by legislators over aspects of the compact—including a controversial requirement that the state re-negotiate with the Tribe in three years to open up all online gaming—Speaker Sprowls announced an amended version of the compact on the opening day of special session. The updated compact, as well as companion legislation, was passed two days later and signed by the governor on May 25th.
There were also a number of key issues that failed this session:
Data Privacy: HB 969 was a controversial bill that sought to give consumers more control over personal data. Although the legislation was backed by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, the bill faced heavy scrutiny before eventually failing. The bill imposed significant penalties for sharing or selling consumer data and also included a private right of action. The bill was heavily opposed by the larger business community in the state of Florida and ultimately failed to gain passage in The Florida Senate. This bill will return again during the 2022 legislative session.
Unemployment Benefits: The Senate attempted to make significant changes to unemployment benefits in SB 1906. The first would have increased unemployment benefits from $275 to $375 a week. The second change would have extended the eligibility period from 12 to 14 weeks. Despite these efforts, the House refused the plan.
Vacation Rentals: After years of trying to come to an agreement, the legislature ultimately did not pass a sweeping preemption of local government vacation rental rules and regulations within HB 219 and SB 522. At one point, this issue was a priority of key members of the legislature, but as session went on, support faded as many local communities began engaging with their members wanting more (not less) regulation of vacation rentals in their communities.
Abortion: HB 1221 sought to prevent doctors from providing abortions based on fetuses that were shown to have disabilities. The Senate companion (SB 1664) was not taken up.
Alimony: The House passed a bill reforming Florida’s alimony laws but the Senate companion, 1922, was postponed. The bill would have reduced the duration of alimony and eliminated permanent alimony.
Pension Reform: SB 858 was an attempt to change the state retirement system in a major way. However, the House never took up the legislation.
THC Caps: HB 1455 and SB 1958 would have put caps on THC and added more regulations on medical marijuana. Ultimately, these bills didn’t gain much traction.
Union Dues: Republicans attempted once again to pass a “paycheck protection” bill. SB 1014 and HB 835 would have required teachers and others to confirm that they want union dues taken out of their pay before the deductions could start.
School Board Term Limits: The House approved HJR 1461 to put eight-year term limits on school board members. The proposal would have required voters to pass a constitutional amendment. However, the legislation died in the Senate.
A number of high profile bills have already been signed, but the majority of legislation passed still awaits signature by the governor. The new fiscal year begins July 1st.