By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers will gather March 5 in the House chamber to hear Gov. Ron DeSantis give his first State of the State address, the traditional start of the 60-day legislative session.
Led by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, lawmakers this year will deal with myriad issues, ranging from passing a state budget to deciding whether to allow patients to smoke medical marijuana.
Here are 10 big issues to watch during the session:
BUDGET: DeSantis has proposed a $91.3 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, as he seeks to increase money for education and water-quality projects and trim taxes. But the DeSantis proposal is only a starting point for lawmakers, who will have their own priorities for state funding. Lawmakers also will grapple with recovery costs from Hurricane Michael, which devastated parts of Northwest Florida in October.
ENVIRONMENT: After algae and red tide fouled waterways and coastal areas in Southeast Florida and Southwest Florida last year, DeSantis is making a priority of addressing water-quality issues. DeSantis has proposed a $625 million package that addresses Everglades restoration and other water-related issues. Lawmakers also are pushing bills that would deal with problems such as cleaning up the Indian River Lagoon.
HEALTH CARE: Oliva and other House Republican leaders want to reduce regulations in the health-care industry, arguing that taking more of a free-market approach would help hold down costs. The House is targeting a variety of issues, such as “certificate of need” regulations that help determine whether hospitals and other types of facilities can be built. DeSantis has touted a proposal aimed at allowing lower-cost prescription drugs to be imported from Canada.
HURRICANE MICHAEL: Lawmakers face costly decisions as they look to help Northwest Florida recover from Hurricane Michael. Galvano said the state has already spent $1.13 billion responding to the October hurricane, and the total could go as high as $2.7 billion. The federal government is expected to reimburse many costs, but that will take time. The state also faces issues such as helping the region’s severely damaged timber industry.
INSURANCE: The insurance industry and business groups are lobbying heavily to make changes in the controversial insurance practice known as assignment of benefits, which involves policyholders signing over benefits to contractors. Insurers argue abuse and litigation are driving up property-insurance rates, while AOB supporters say the practice helps make sure insurers properly pay claims. A key part of the debate focuses on limiting attorney fees.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA: Facing heavy pressure from DeSantis, lawmakers appear likely to end a ban on smoking medical marijuana. The ban, included in a 2017 medical-marijuana law, was found unconstitutional by a circuit judge, and DeSantis has threatened to drop an appeal if the Legislature does not eliminate the ban. It is less clear, however, whether lawmakers will address other medical-marijuana regulatory issues that have led to lawsuits.
SCHOOL CHOICE: DeSantis and Senate leaders have outlined proposals that could lead to a major expansion of school choice, including the creation of a voucher-type program that would be directly funded with tax dollars. The House has long supported such programs, as has new Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Democrats and teachers unions will fight the expansion, but Republicans control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office.
SCHOOL SAFETY: Just past the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, lawmakers will look again at revamping laws to boost school safety. The most-controversial issue will be a proposal to expand the school “guardian” program to allow trained classroom teachers to be armed. A state commission created last year recommended allowing armed teachers.
SUPREME COURT: After taking office last month, DeSantis made three appointments that created a solid conservative majority on the Florida Supreme Court. The change could embolden the GOP-controlled Legislature, which in the past clashed with a more-liberal Supreme Court. As examples, lawmakers could expand taxpayer-funded school vouchers and cap attorney fees in workers’ compensation insurance cases — issues that previously ran into Supreme Court roadblocks.
TRANSPORTATION: Galvano has made clear that one of his top priorities will be highway projects that he says would help rural areas. The Senate president wants to extend the Suncoast Parkway toll road to go from the Tampa Bay region to the Georgia border; create a multi-use corridor, including a highway, from Polk County to Collier County; and extend the Florida Turnpike west from where it currently ends at Interstate 75.