By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers finished the 2019 legislative session Saturday by passing a budget for the upcoming year.
During the two-month session, lawmakers considered hundreds of bills and made more than $90 billion in spending decisions. It also was the first session for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and began the two-year terms of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.
Here are 10 big issues from the 2019 session:
BUDGET: Lawmakers passed a $91.1 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, slightly smaller than the $91.3 billion plan proposed by DeSantis. Republican leaders touted issues such as a $242-per-student increase in school funding and an infusion of money for Everglades restoration and water-quality projects. The House and Senate also agreed on a tax package that includes back-to-school and disaster-preparedness tax “holidays.”
CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS: In one of the most-controversial issues of the session, lawmakers passed a plan that would carry out a constitutional amendment designed to restore the voting rights of felons who have fulfilled their sentences. Critics argued the legislation was too restrictive and would prevent many felons from voting. In the final hours of the session, lawmakers also passed a bill that would make it harder to get citizens’ initiatives on the ballot.
ENVIRONMENT: After massive problems last year with red tide and toxic algae in Southwest Florida and Southeast Florida, DeSantis made a top priority of water-related issues. Lawmakers included about $682 million in the budget for water-quality efforts and Everglades restoration. One of the highest-profile environmental issues of the session — a proposed ban on the oil- and gas-drilling technique known as “fracking” — did not pass.
HEALTH CARE: Oliva came into the session with a focus on overhauling health-care regulations and largely was successful. In part, he pushed through elimination of the long-controversial “certificate of need” regulatory process for new hospitals and services. Also, Oliva played a key role in passing a plan that could lead to importing lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, an issue that DeSantis has championed.
HURRICANE MICHAEL: As lawmakers met in the Capitol, Northwest Florida residents, businesses and local governments continued struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. The House and Senate received hundreds of millions of dollars in requests for assistance and put about $220 million in the new budget for recovery efforts. Also, a tax package includes measures to help farmers hammered by the October storm.
INSURANCE: In a big win for the insurance industry, lawmakers approved an overhaul of the controversial insurance practice known as “assignment of benefits.” The longstanding practice involves policyholders signing over benefits to contractors, and insurers contend that abuses and litigation are driving up insurance premiums. Lawmakers took steps such as limiting attorney fees in so-called AOB cases.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA: Going into the session, DeSantis essentially gave lawmakers an offer they couldn’t refuse as he sought to eliminate a ban on smokable medical marijuana. If lawmakers didn’t act, DeSantis threatened to drop an appeal of a court ruling that said the smoking ban, included in a 2017 law, was unconstitutional. Lawmakers quickly went along with DeSantis’ request and eliminated the ban in March.
SCHOOL CHOICE: The Republican-dominated Legislature continued expanding school choice, including passing a new vouchers program known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program. Under the program, state money will be used to send as many as 18,000 students to private schools next year. Critics contend the plan is unconstitutional, citing a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar vouchers program.
SCHOOL SAFETY: Pointing to recommendations by a commission created after last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, lawmakers passed a wide-ranging bill designed to bolster school safety. The bill included issues such as improving mental-health services, but almost all of the debate focused on a controversial provision that would expand the school “guardian” program to allow armed classroom teachers.
TRANSPORTATION: In a top priority for Galvano, lawmakers approved a plan aimed at expanding or building three toll roads. The plan, which drew opposition from environmentalists, would extend the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay region to the Georgia border; extend the Florida Turnpike west to hook up with the Suncoast Parkway; and create a multi-use corridor, including a toll road, from Polk County to Collier County.