By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
Gov. Ron DeSantis is backing the Senate in a heated fight over E-Verify, a move that could tip the scale in a contentious immigration battle as the 2020 legislative session draws to a close.
Senate President Bill Galvano said his chamber is ready to consider legislation that was negotiated between Sen. Tom Lee, who is sponsoring the bill, and what he called the “plaza level,” referring to the governor’s office that is located on the first floor of the state Capitol.
“It was negotiated with the plaza level and I also weighed in to make sure we were on the same page,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, told reporters Tuesday.
The negotiations resulted in a Senate bill (SB 664) that would require all public employers — including school districts, state agencies and public universities — to use the federal government’s E-Verify system to check the legal eligibility of new workers.
The Senate proposal would also require private employers with at least 50 employees to use the federal system, or one that the state Department of Economic Opportunity deems is “substantially equivalent” to E-Verify.
Smaller businesses would be exempt from the mandate and would have the option to keep using an “I-9” form, which the federal government uses to verify applicants’ identities and eligibility to work.
Galvano said he is “comfortable” with the Senate’s bill, which is being championed by Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who is a former Senate president. Galvano added that the Senate did not take up the measure during Thursday’s floor session to allow the House to have “discussions and work it through.”
House bill sponsor Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday he has no plans to amend his proposal before its scheduled consideration on the floor on Friday.
Byrd’s bill (HB 1265) would require all public employers to use E-Verify, but would give all private employers the option to use an I-9 form. However, the bill would require private businesses that benefit from taxpayer-funded economic incentives to use E-Verify.
DeSantis, who made an E-Verify requirement a cornerstone of his 2018 campaign for governor, favors the Senate’s approach, according to his staff.
Byrd declined to comment on the governor’s office preference.
For months, DeSantis has asked the Republican-dominated Legislature to send him a bill that would require all public and private employers to use E-Verify.
The measure the governor’s office negotiated with the Senate goes beyond an E-Verify requirement. The bill would also give the Department of Economic Opportunity, which is part of his administration, the power to conduct random audits of private businesses to determine if they have hired undocumented immigrants.
The Senate bill would also require private employers to provide verification documents to federal and state authorities upon request.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, has filed a long-shot amendment that would remove all of DEO’s authority from the Senate bill. He has expressed concern that the bill would force the state agency to contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about private businesses’ issues.
Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a co-sponsor of the Byrd’s E-Verify bill, told the News Service on Thursday that he also prefers the Senate plan.
“Both versions have room to improve. The Senate version is currently better but the ‘50 or less employees’ carve-out should also be removed,” Sabatini, R-Howey in the Hills, said.
As the House prepares to consider its measure, Galvano said he is willing to continue negotiations on E-Verify, if the House decides to diverge from what the Senate is proposing.
“At this point I am comfortable with our bill, but if we want to see something be successful, which we do, then negotiations continue,” Galvano told reporters on Thursday.
The two chambers have to reach a consensus before the end of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end on March 13 but may run into overtime.
With the backing of Republican leaders, the chances of passing an E-Verify proposal in the Senate appear to be improving. At the beginning of the 60-day legislative session, Galvano balked at the governor’s proposal.
“It is something that the Florida Senate — or at least this administration — does not endorse,” Galvano told the News Service in December.
“Let me put it this way,” he said at the time. “I don’t support having the requirement that everyone (use) E-Verify. It’s putting an additional responsibility on non-government officials.”