By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Let’s be blunt.
Less than two weeks into his first legislative session as Florida’s chief executive, Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking a well-deserved victory lap after strong-arming lawmakers into hoisting the white flag on pot.
The Republican governor gave the Legislature an ultimatum shortly after he took office in January: Get rid of the state prohibition against smokable medical marijuana, or I’ll do it without you.
If lawmakers didn’t act by March 15, DeSantis threatened to drop the state’s appeal of a court decision that said the smoking ban violated a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana.
GOP legislative leaders, who included the smoking ban in a 2017 law aimed at carrying out the amendment, grudgingly surrendered to the 40-year-old governor this week, sparking a shout-out from DeSantis.
“The Florida Legislature has taken a significant step this week to uphold the will of the voters and support the patients who will gain relief as a result of this legislation. President Bill Galvano, Speaker José Oliva, Senator Jeff Brandes and Representative Ray Rodrigues have done a tremendous job, working hard to ensure the voices of Floridians are heard. I commend them for their diligence on this issue,” DeSantis said in a statement Thursday.
Rodrigues, R-Estero, and Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, shepherded the legislation, which received overwhelming support from both chambers despite insistence by Galvano and Oliva that the smoking ban was — and remains — legit.
So why did lawmakers cave on the issue? The Republican leaders didn’t want the courts to have the last word in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the smoking ban, according to Oliva.
The lawsuit “was more about the Legislature’s prerogative and the Legislature’s being able to pass laws to regulate things like medicine in the state,” Oliva told reporters after the House signed off on the bill Wednesday.
While Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers ruled that the ban was unconstitutional, Oliva would have preferred to wait for the 1st District Court of Appeal, which is more conservative than Gievers, to opine.
“I would have been interested to hear what would have come of that appeal. We might still. But I think that, again, the most important thing was that the elected lawmakers of the state would have an opportunity to legislate how this would be governed in this state,” he said.
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
The House passed the repeal of the smoking ban (SB 182) in a 101-11 vote, sending the bill to the governor two days before the DeSantis-imposed March 15 deadline. The Senate passed the bill last week.
DeSantis has until Wednesday to act on the measure or let it become law without his signature.
Despite DeSantis’ insistence that the ban be repealed, Rodrigues, who was also instrumental in crafting the 2017 law that carried out the constitutional amendment, noted that “many of us feel like we got it right” the first time.
“I’m not going to have all of your votes today, and I understand that, and I respect that. My encouragement to you is to vote your conscience, but what I would say is this: This bill is important because if we do not pass this bill, then the guardrails that we could place around smokable medical marijuana will not exist,” Rodrigues said before the House vote.
While eliminating the ban, the bill includes some restrictions — or guardrails, to borrow Rodrigues’ description — on smokable marijuana. It would allow patients to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for smoking every 35 days, ban smoking of medical marijuana in public places and allow terminally ill children to smoke the treatment, but only if they have a second opinion from a pediatrician.
Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who has made a fortune in the cigar business, had balked at doing away with the marijuana-smoking ban. Supporters of the ban argued, in part, that smoking is hazardous to people’s health.
But after DeSantis delivered the ultimatum, the House made a series of concessions to reach an accord with the Senate, which historically has taken a less-restrictive approach toward medical marijuana.
Under the compromise passed by both chambers, dispensaries can sell any form of smokable marijuana, and patients can buy devices to smoke cannabis at retail outlets, such as head shops.
The bill also requires the state university system’s Board of Governors to designate a university to house a “Consortium for Medical Marijuana Clinical Outcomes Research” and steers $1.5 million each year to fund the research, which would be based on data submitted by doctors.
Oliva, who voted in favor of the bill, told reporters he continues to have concerns about what he called “a difficult subject.”
“I don’t know, and we don’t have the data — hopefully we will in the coming years — to show if there truly are benefits to consuming this medicine in this fashion. I personally don’t believe that there probably is. And there might be some detrimental effects as a result of that, which is why I had reservations then, and I still have them now,” he said.
VOUCHER PLANS GAIN STEAM
Vouchers have long been a controversial issue in the Legislature, with supporters saying private-school scholarships offer needed choices to families and opponents saying they strip money from traditional public schools.
But on Thursday, the House began moving forward with a dramatic expansion of school vouchers, including allowing middle-class families to apply for state-funded scholarships to send children to private schools.
The GOP-controlled House and Senate and the Republican governor all want to expand voucher-type programs and point to a waiting list of about 14,000 students in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which serves low-income children.
The House Education Committee on Thursday approved a bill (HB 7075) that would create a new voucher program, known as the “Family Empowerment Scholarship” program, which would be open to many middle-class families.
If approved, the program would be available to families whose incomes are up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level during the 2019-2020 school year — a calculation that equates to $77,250 for a family of four. The threshold would gradually increase, with a family of four making $96,572 eligible for the vouchers in the 2022-2023 school year.
Rep. James Bush, a Miami Democrat who supports school choice, said he is worried the House is moving away from the goal of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which was to help low-income children attend private schools.
“My only concern is keeping the original intent of helping low-income children,” Bush said.
The Senate version (SB 7070), meanwhile, would create a program that would provide vouchers to families up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level — the equivalent of $66,950 for a family of four.
Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, and Senate Education Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said they think that’s a better approach.
“In the real world, depending on where you live, if you look at a family of four and say they make $96,000, it sounds like a lot. But sometimes it is deceiving,” Diaz told The News Service of Florida.
Diaz, however, was careful about calling people at the House’s household income threshold a middle-class family.
“We all know the truth,” Diaz said. “They are working class, obviously.”
But the Florida Democratic Party blasted the proposed voucher expansion, in part raising questions about whether it would be constitutional to use tax dollars for the new program. The state Supreme Court in 2006 struck down a voucher program backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
“House Republicans are abusing the legislative process to rush this bill through because they know it would never hold up under sustained scrutiny,” Democratic Party spokesman Kevin Donohoe said in a prepared statement.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Ceding to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a proposal to do away with the state’s ban on smoking medical marijuana.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It’s about damn time.” — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat and former medical marijuana lobbyist, on the Legislature’s proposed repeal of the smoking prohibition.