By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers this week kicked off the 2020 legislative session with an action-packed schedule that featured speeches from Republican leaders, early tension over high-profile issues and a key Florida Supreme Court ruling.
In his State of the State address Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis told legislators that, while much has been done in the last year, there is “much more to do.”
“This will require a lot of toil and sweat and it will require not just words, but deeds. We can’t rest on past accomplishments,” the governor said. “Our only easy day was yesterday.”
By Friday morning, the spotlight on Tuesday’s opening-day ceremonies and kickoff of the 2020 legislative session was refocused on debates being hashed out in committee rooms.
In five short days, Florida lawmakers had fast-tracked bills to require parental consent for minors’ abortions, loosen sentences for certain drug-traffickers and ban local governments from regulating sunscreens.
House panels approved legislation that would make it harder to put constitutional amendments on the ballot and would clear the way for specialty, or “boutique,” hospitals.
In the Senate, an education committee on Monday set the stage for DeSantis’ teacher-pay plans, even as a sea of educators and students crowded outside the Capitol to protest inadequate funding for the state’s public school system.
Republican leaders this week also provided a glimpse into some of the big fights the session might bring.
One clash will revolve around a sweeping gun-control measure, aimed at closing the gun-show “loophole,” that would create a system to track private gun sales. A priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, the National Rifle Association is taking aim at the measure. DeSantis and House Speaker Jose Oliva also expressed skepticism about the bill, putting its future in doubt.
Republican leaders also may not see eye-to-eye on immigration, Visit Florida and health care, so get the popcorn ready as the House and Senate square off over those high-profile issues and more during the next 60 days.
OLIVA LASHES OUT AT HEALTH CARE SYSTEM
Lashing out at the health-care industry as “robber barons” on the opening day of session, Oliva’s aggressive remarks painted a bleak picture of the industry as putting profits over patients.
The Miami Lakes Republican outlined what he considers to be a fix, including allowing advanced practice registered nurses to provide care independently from physicians.
It’s not clear, though, that DeSantis or the Senate see things the same way, setting the stage for a potentially contentious back-and-forth over the next weeks.
Oliva dedicated a large part of his 18-minute opening day speech in the House to the need to revamp medical professional licensure regulations, which he called “archaic and backward.” He has encouraged lawmakers to allow “health-care professionals to practice to the extent of their training.”
Revamping the health-care industry has been a top priority for Oliva in his two years as speaker. He has called for a more free-market approach and helped lead efforts to pass a bill that authorized the state to establish two international drug importation programs, an issue that DeSantis also touched upon in his opening State of the State speech.
AMENDMENT 4 SUPPORTERS FACE SETBACK
Siding with the Republican governor, the Florida Supreme Court decided Thursday that a state law requiring payment of “legal financial obligations” properly carried out a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.
The amendment’s “use of the broad phrase ‘all terms of sentence’ can only reasonably be understood to similarly encompass ‘the ultimate sanctions imposed,’ including ‘costs.’ Or in the words of the sponsor’s counsel, the phrase encompasses ‘all obligations’ or ‘all matters,’ ” the court decided.
More than 71 percent of Floridians supported what appeared on the November 2018 ballot as Amendment 4, which granted voting-rights restoration to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation,” excluding people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
But the meaning of “all terms of their sentence” became a contentious sticking point for the Legislature as it crafted a law to carry out the amendment.
Lawmakers finally settled on a measure requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations,” such as restitution, fines and fees, to be eligible to have voting rights restored.
But voting-rights groups and civil-rights advocates quickly filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state law, arguing in part that linking voting rights and financial obligations amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”
The justices’ opinion, requested by DeSantis, relied in part on arguments made by proponents of the constitutional amendment when seeking Florida Supreme Court approval to get the measure on the 2018 ballot.
The drafters of the amendment wrote at the time that they “intend that individuals with felony convictions, excluding those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, will automatically regain their right to vote upon fulfillment of all obligations imposed under their criminal sentence,” Thursday’s opinion said.
“In other words, the sponsor intended that ‘all terms’ refer to obligations, not durational periods,” the opinion reads.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in October ruled that Florida cannot deny the right to vote to felons who have served their sentences but are “genuinely unable” to pay legal financial obligations. DeSantis’ administration has appealed that ruling.
Thursday’s Florida Supreme Court opinion siding with the state, widely expected by court watchers, came as the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals prepares to hear arguments Jan. 28 in the separate federal lawsuit.
SENATORS BACK CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORMS
The Florida Senate is on the brink of approving a bipartisan bill that would loosen sentencing laws for certain drug-trafficking offenses, a move that has the potential of significantly reducing the state’s prison population.
The measure, which would allow for shorter sentences and more judicial discretion, was unanimously approved Thursday by the Senate Appropriations Committee, the last hurdle before heading to the floor for a full Senate vote.
Senate budget chief Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the committee’s overwhelming support of the bill “sends a strong message” about the Senate’s support for criminal justice reform during the 2020 legislative session, which began Tuesday.
But it’s unclear whether the Florida House will embrace the proposed sentencing changes.
Under the new guidelines laid out in Bradley’s measure, judges would be allowed to consider shorter sentences and lower fines for drug-trafficking defendants who meet certain criteria. The bill (SB 346) would also set a maximum incarceration time of 12 months for people who buy or possess less than two grams of a controlled substance, other than fentanyl.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida’s 60-day legislative session kicked off Tuesday, with Republican leaders highlighting priorities such as education, health care and public safety.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “To me it is a bright day when we are discussing up to $900 million in teacher salaries. I know the devil is in the details, but this is the first step and I appreciate you taking this initiative.” — Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who is a former Leon County superintendent of schools, speaking about a measure (SB 1088) that could be the first step toward increasing raising pay for public school teachers.