Last Tuesday, the Florida legislature held its constitutionally-required organizational session to officially elect each chamber’s leader and minority leader, as well as swear-in newly elected members. Presiding over the House for the next two years is Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) and at the helm of the Senate is President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby), both from the Tampa Bay area. Sen. Gary Farmer and Rep. Bobby DuBose, both from Fort Lauderdale, were elected to lead the minority parties in their respective chambers. Organizational session was held only a few weeks after Republicans picked up seats in the House and Senate.
In addition to making these leadership positions official, organizational session provides an opportunity for chamber leaders to telegraph their policy priorities and provide a glimpse into what the next two years may look like. Below are some of the issues we expect to make traction in 2021-22 legislative sessions:
· Public Safety/Anti-Protesting Policies: Gov. DeSantis rolled out a proposed concept in late September which would create new criminal offenses and increase penalties for individuals involved in violent or disorderly assemblies. This was a response to the riots and looting occurring in other states around the country. During that press availability in September, he was joined by House Speaker Chris Sprowls. We expect this criminal justice issue to be red hot during the 2021 legislative session.
· COVID-19 Liability Protection: Both chambers have expressed interest in protecting businesses from frivolous lawsuits when those businesses have sought to follow CDC guidelines in reopening. These law changes are not a given, as the trial lawyers in Florida are one of the most organized and effective lobbies in the state, and will heavily oppose broad levels of immunity. Trial lawyers in Florida often outspend the business community during campaign season, and have friends on both sides of the aisle. In order for legislation to pass, it will require a strong, coordinated and heavily funded lobbying effort.
· “Wayfair”/Internet Sales Tax: Over the last few years, the internet sales tax issue has not made any headway. However, in a move that some find surprising, Senate President Simpson appeared to publicly back the tax in his comments to the press after his first speech as Senate President, putting this bill in play for 2021. The state will need to plug a massive budget hole and any way of raising revenues without raising a new tax could be a possibility.
· Governor’s Executive Powers – State of Emergency: COVID-19 has presented each governor with unique challenges in governing by Executive Order and some legislative leaders have privately—or even publicly—expressed concern about unilateral powers used during the pandemic and willingness to engage the legislative process to enact a statutory framework for any future state of emergency orders.
· Local Government Powers: Equally troubling to state legislators was the tendencies of some local governments to enact broad restrictions on the economy by emergency ordinance. Expect this to be discussed.
· Workforce Reform: Continuing in the footsteps of Gov. DeSantis and other legislative leaders, Speaker Chris Sprowls has announced his forthcoming “Opportunity Agenda.” Among other things, he wants to create a unified hub for workforce programs, with a focus on outcomes instead inputs, expand opportunities for entrepreneurship, and address hurdles within occupational licensing and other business regulations.
· Child Welfare Reform: A personal interest of the new Senate President and First Lady, child welfare is certain to be a major issue again this session.
· Literacy/Early Learning: A handful of lawmakers have been working unsuccessfully for years to get significant legislation passed on early learning. With a renewed focus on literacy by Speaker Sprowls, including his goal of a massive statewide book initiative and parent bootcamps in partnership with local libraries, and (separately) his desire to address maternal health…is this the year that Florida finally makes progress on zero to three?
· Climate Change, Land Conservation, and Sea Level Rise: The willingness of the Speaker and President to address environmental issues like sea level rise may be higher than of GOP leaders in the past, but it remains to be seen how, and to what extent, these will be addressed. New coastal building codes, setbacks, insurance requirements and coastal protection measures could all be a part of a comprehensive plan discussed in the 2021 legislative session.
· Revisiting Medicaid Expansion: Neither Gov. DeSantis nor leadership of either chamber has expressed interested in expanding Medicaid; however, with President-elect Biden coming into the White House, there may be federal pressure to rethink this issue, as states continue to look for new ways to reform Medicaid.
Although Florida’s regular legislative session doesn’t begin until the first Tuesday in March, House and Senate Committees will begin to meet in January and February to hear presentations from state agencies, begin the budget writing process, workshop legislative ideas and even vote certain proprietary bills out of committee so they are available early in session for floor action.