By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A last-minute deal on E-Verify emerged in the Senate on Friday, moving the Republican-dominated Legislature closer to giving Gov. Ron DeSantis a win on a key campaign promise.
After weeks of negotiating with the governor’s office and reviewing a House proposal, Senate bill sponsor Tom Lee said Friday the Senate earlier that day had reached a “compromise” that would give the DeSantis administration the power to randomly audit private businesses to ensure they are verifying workers’ legal eligibility.
The bill would give private employers the option to use E-Verify, a federal program that checks the immigration status of workers, or keep a three-year record of all documents used by applicants when filling out a form “I-9,” which is used by the federal government to verify a worker’s legal eligibility.
The Senate proposal (SB 664) would give the Department of Economic Opportunity the power to suspend the licenses of Florida businesses if they do not use one of the options. The state agency also would be allowed to impose a $500 fine on non-compliant businesses. The Senate could vote on the measure as soon as Monday.
Speaking about the proposal on the Senate floor Friday evening, Lee, R-Thonotosassa, called the revisions to his bill a “compromise.”
But shortly after the Senate changed its measure, House Speaker Jose Oliva said he had not yet warmed up to the plan.
“I haven’t seen all the details of it yet. I can’t say that I am ready to take it up just yet,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, told reporters.
Rep. Cord Byrd, the sponsor of the House bill, told The News Service of Florida that the House is in the process of comparing both proposals. The Senate’s revised bill moves closer to the House plan, Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, said.
One of the differences between the two plans deals with money.
Lee’s bill would steer $2.6 million in funding for the 2020-2021 fiscal year to the Department of Economic Opportunity to allow the agency to hire more workers to enforce the proposed legislation.
Senate Budget Chief Rob Bradley told the News Service on Friday that the money tied to the bill has not been negotiated with the House. The issue will be part of budget negotiations between the chambers in the coming days, Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said .
Lee said Friday that, while he has not personally talked to DEO officials, the governor’s aides assured him that the agency is prepared to take on the additional responsibilities tied to worker verification.
Until Friday, Lee’s bill would have required all private businesses to use E-Verify, or a “substantially equivalent” system, but would have exempted businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
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.
The push to implement E-Verify this session came at the urging of DeSantis, who made an E-Verify mandate a cornerstone of his 2018 campaign for governor.
To keep his promise to supporters, DeSantis pressured the Republican-dominated Legislature to send him a bill that would require all public and private employers to register with and use E-Verify, a program that is widely supported by GOP base voters.
Previous legislative attempts to pass an E-Verify bill have failed, partly due to the fierce opposition of the agriculture, tourism and construction industries. Some of the groups are major GOP donors.
Lee said the compromise rolled out by the Senate on Friday is less of a burden on private businesses than what was proposed earlier this session.
He said the bill would give private employers the option to not use E-Verify, and instead keep a record of documents used to fill an “I-9” form, which employers should already be using under federal law.
The House and Senate bills, however, propose a significant expansion to the state’s use of E-Verify.
Both bills would require all public employers — such as local school districts, public universities and state agencies — and their contractors to register with and use the E-Verify system.
Agencies under the direction of the governor are the only ones currently required to use the federal system, under an executive order signed by former Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 that remains in place.