By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Midpoints can carry a split sensation of dread and relief.
And Capitol insiders aren’t immune to those emotions, as the halfway mark of the 2020 legislative session nears.
With just five more weeks until the annual 60-day spectacle ends, the heat is on for lawmakers and lobbyists to secure passage of priority legislation and to ensure the demise of that which they abhor.
Eclipsing all other issues is the Florida budget, with a nearly $1.5 billion gap between the House and Senate state spending plans. Horse-trading between the two chambers will begin in earnest after the chambers pass their plans next week.
But the budget isn’t the only sticking point as Wednesday’s halfway point approaches.
Still up in the air is an issue at the top of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ wish list: a controversial proposal that would require all employers to verify the immigration status of workers. The E-Verify measure has also become a priority for the Republican Party of Florida, thanks to state Sen. Joe Gruters, who doubles as the GOP state party chief.
The House and Senate remain divided about whether to take the Office of Energy away from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone statewide-elected Democrat. The House is pushing the move — which Fried calls a political “power grab” —and apparently also is miffed that Fried hasn’t removed her visage from stickers on gas pumps.
And the two sides are split on a slew of health-care issues, including whether to permanently eliminate Medicaid retroactive eligibility for seniors and people with disabilities and how to deal with perpetual financial troubles at the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.
ABORTION FOES HEADED FOR SUCCESS
Despite differences in other areas, the House and Senate are in lockstep on one of this year’s most controversial proposals: a bill that would require parental consent before minors could have abortions.
In a major victory for abortion opponents, the Senate on Thursday passed the proposal in a 23-17 vote that teed up the issue for the House, which is almost certain to pass it.
DeSantis used part of his State of the State address last month to urge lawmakers to send a parental-notification requirement to his desk.
The Senate shied away from the politically divisive issue in the past, but Senate President Bill Galvano signaled before this year’s legislative session that he supported requiring parental consent. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, moved quickly through committees, powered by Republican majorities.
It passed Thursday along straight party lines.
At each step in the legislative process, the measure sparked debate about whether lawmakers should place additional restrictions on abortions and the role of parents in helping teens decide whether to end pregnancies.
Republican supporters pointed to what they described as life-changing decisions about having abortions and said parents need to be involved.
“There are myriad reasons why this is a good policy initiative here in the state of Florida, and I think it’s genuinely to empower families to make decisions together on such an important subject,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, told reporters after the vote.
Democrats, however, said the bill would give parents veto power over decisions by teens about whether to have abortions.
“I don’t believe that the state of Florida should be forcing children to have children,” Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said.
The Florida Supreme Court in 1989 struck down a parental-consent law, finding that it violated a right to privacy in the state Constitution. Democrats and Republicans disagreed Thursday about whether the new measure would be found constitutional as it faces what are widely viewed as inevitable legal challenges. A wildcard in the debate is that the Supreme Court has a new conservative majority.
LET THE HORSE-TRADING BEGIN
With budget proposals that offer pay increases for state workers and elevate funding for the environment, House and Senate appropriations committees Wednesday unanimously backed record-setting spending plans.
Support for the proposals came despite concerns about issues such as using affordable-housing dollars to cover other programs and shifting the state Office of Energy away from Fried.
The House Appropriations Committee vote came with a few technical changes to the House’s $91.37 billion proposal (HB 5001) and accompanying bills, while the Senate Appropriations Committee quickly approved 69 amendments that shifted spending within the Senate’s $92.83 billion proposal (SB 2500).
House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, called the unanimous support from his committee “refreshing,” while he acknowledged comments from members of both parties about issues such as pay for corrections officers and teachers.
“I do think we have some work to do,” Cummings said. “Clearly there’s some differences from the Senate budget, although there’s a lot of similarities as well. And so, I feel we have some obvious work to do in conference (negotiations).”
The full House and Senate are now ready to vote on their budget proposals for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1. After those votes, the chambers will need to hammer out differences before the scheduled March 13 end of the legislative session.
Among key issues during the negotiations will be the House’s desire to use affordable-housing money for other parts of the budget; a disagreement about how much money to spend on the Florida Forever land-preservation program; differences on pay raises for state employees; and a House push to eliminate the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida.
AT ODDS OVER E-VERIFY
A politically charged immigration bill is poised to get a makeover that sponsors hope will align the measure with the position backed by DeSantis and the Republican Party of Florida.
The governor and the state party, led by Gruters, are pushing a mandate for public and private employers to use E-Verify, a program that checks the legal eligibility of new workers.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday will give a first vetting to a proposal by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, that would require private and public employers to use the federal E-Verify system. Lee’s proposal (SB 664) is the strictest E-Verify proposal that has been filed.
The E-Verify proposal is the most contentious immigration issue facing lawmakers this legislative session, as they head into the 2020 election cycle where President Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket.
Attempts to impose a mandate on all employers have long divided Florida Republicans. While E-Verify is popular among GOP base voters, it is being fiercely opposed by the state’s agriculture, tourism and construction industries, which include major Republican donors.
Galvano on Thursday said Senate Judiciary Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, has been working with Lee and others involved in the issue to see if the Senate can “reach a balance to allay some of the concerns that myself and others have had in this chamber and see if we can get somewhere with it.”
The House version of the bill has not been heard in committees. House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said Wednesday he still has concerns about it.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Senate, along party lines, passed a measure that would require minors to have parental consent to obtain abortions, setting up an all-but-certain favorable vote from the House.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Republicans are threatened. (They) had near-complete power for almost two decades. Now a Democratic woman gets elected statewide and the old boys club cannot stand for it.” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, speaking about a push by the House to move the Office of Energy from her administration to that of Gov. Ron DeSantis.