By Jim Saunders, The News Services of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — The 2021 legislative session will start March 2, with Gov. Ron DeSantis giving the annual State of the State address.
Lawmakers will take up a wide range of issues during the 60-day session, along with negotiating a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Here are 10 big issues to watch during the session:
BUDGET: With the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic reducing expected tax revenues, legislative leaders have warned repeatedly that they likely will make budget cuts. But Gov. Ron DeSantis in January released a record $96.6 billion budget proposal for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which will start July 1. DeSantis’ proposal is a starting point for lawmakers, who have continued to offer a less-rosy view of the state’s finances.
EDUCATION: Continuing years of Republican efforts to boost school choice, lawmakers are considering a major school-vouchers bill that includes expanding eligibility for scholarship programs and creating what are known as “education savings accounts.” Meanwhile, public schools will be a key budget issue, in part because lawmakers will have to decide how to address nearly 88,000 students who did not enroll as expected this year during the pandemic.
ELECTIONS: Republican leaders are backing controversial proposals that would change the vote-by-mail process. As an example, one proposal would require voters to request vote-by-mail ballots more frequently, while another would prevent volunteers from collecting vote-by-mail ballots from people outside of their families. Critics argue the proposals are aimed at reducing mail-in voting, which Democrats used heavily during the 2020 elections.
ENVIRONMENT: DeSantis is asking lawmakers for $625 million to continue a multi-year effort to restore the Everglades and address other water-related issues, such as springs restoration. But he also is pitching a new “Resilient Florida” program, which would involve issuing bonds to help provide $1 billion over four years to state and local governments to address climate-change impacts, such as rising sea levels.
HEALTH CARE: As the largest part of the state budget, health and human services will play a key role as lawmakers negotiate a new spending plan. One closely watched issue will be Medicaid reimbursement rates for hospitals and nursing homes. Lawmakers could look to reduce state dollars going into Medicaid without slashing rates, possibly through a new hospital arrangement that would involve local money being used to draw down federal matching funds.
INSURANCE: Senate leaders are backing a long-debated idea to eliminate Florida’s no-fault auto insurance system and the requirement that motorists carry personal-injury protection, or PIP, coverage. The proposal would lead to motorists being required to carry bodily injury coverage. Also, lawmakers could make changes in the property-insurance system, as premiums increase and more homeowners turn to the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
LIABILITY: Health-care providers and other businesses are clamoring for protections from coronavirus-related lawsuits. The House is poised to quickly pass a bill that would shield non-health care businesses from liability, But lawmakers are wrestling with some thorny issues, including details of protections for nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which have seen more than 10,000 deaths during the pandemic.
PROTESTS: One of the hottest debates during the session could center on proposals by Republican leaders to enhance penalties associated with violent protests, create new crimes when mobs attack property or police and make it difficult for cities to trim law-enforcement spending. The proposals have drawn criticism from Democrats who say they are unnecessary and divisive and could be used to squash peaceful assemblies.
PUBLIC EMPLOYEES: Senate Republicans are backing a controversial proposal that would affect public-employee union dues, while also looking at possibly moving away from the state’s traditional pension system for government workers. Unions have lined up to fight the union dues proposal, which would put additional requirements on the process for deducting dues from paychecks. The other proposal could shift new workers to a 401(k)-style system.
TAXES: With Florida businesses pushing for the change, lawmakers are considering a proposal that would require out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Floridians. Currently, retailers that have a physical presence in Florida must collect and remit sales taxes for items sold in the state. The bill seeks to put the same responsibility on retailers that don’t have such a presence but sell products to Floridians.
— News Service staff writer Christine Sexton contributed to this report.