By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — The 2021 legislative session ended Friday with a traditional hanky-dropping ceremony in the fourth-floor rotunda of the Florida Capitol.
Lawmakers took up a wide range of issues during the 60-day session, along with passing a budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1.
Here are 10 big issues from the session:
BUDGET: Buoyed by billions of dollars in federal stimulus money and rebounding state tax revenues, lawmakers passed a record $101.5 billion budget for the upcoming year. The budget includes such things as bonuses for first responders, providing services to more people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and addressing effects of rising sea levels. Also, lawmakers scrapped proposed cuts in Medicaid funding for hospitals and nursing homes.
COVID-19: Lawmakers passed a measure aimed at shielding businesses and health-care providers from lawsuits related to people getting sick or dying from COVID-19. Also, they approved making permanent a ban on COVID-19 vaccine “passports.” Gov. Ron DeSantis in early April issued an executive order to prohibit businesses from requiring people to show they had been vaccinated to gain entry — the issue that has become known as COVID-19 passports.
EDUCATION: As part of a more than two-decade effort by Republicans to expand school choice, lawmakers passed an overhaul of school-voucher programs. In part, the plan would increase an income threshold so that a family of four making nearly $100,000 a year could qualify for vouchers. In higher education, the Senate considered controversial changes in the Bright Futures scholarship program before largely backing away amid an outcry from students and other opponents.
ELECTIONS: Despite fierce opposition from Democrats, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a wide-ranging elections bill that includes placing new restrictions on voting by mail. Supporters said the bill, which addresses issues such as the use of drop boxes for mail-in ballots, is needed to ensure election security and integrity. But Democrats contended that it is designed to place barriers to voting and likened it to measures aimed at Black voters in the Jim Crow era.
INSURANCE: After years of debating the issue, lawmakers approved ending Florida’s no-fault auto insurance system. Under the bill, motorists would no longer be required to carry personal-injury protection, or PIP, coverage. They would have to carry bodily-injury coverage. Also, lawmakers approved changes in the property-insurance system, including allowing larger annual rate increases for customers of the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
PROTESTS: DeSantis quickly signed a controversial law-and-order measure that was sparked by nationwide protests last year after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The law creates a new crime of “mob intimidation,” enhances riot-related penalties and makes it harder for local officials to reduce spending on law enforcement. But opponents said the measure is rooted in racism and would give police too much leeway to arrest peaceful protesters.
SOCIAL MEDIA: After former President Donald Trump was blocked from Twitter and Facebook early this year, Republican lawmakers passed a plan to crack down on social-media companies. The plan, a priority of DeSantis, includes barring social-media companies from removing political candidates from the companies’ platforms and threatens hefty fines. Critics questioned the bill’s constitutionality and described it as a “big government” move.
TAXES: In a major win for business groups, lawmakers passed a plan that will require out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Floridians. The roughly $1 billion a year generated by the change will be used to replenish a depleted unemployment trust fund. Later, it will be used to offset a cut in a commercial rent tax. Florida businesses have long argued online retailers enjoyed an advantage because they didn’t collect sales taxes.
TOLL ROADS: Two years after then-Senate President Bill Galvano pushed through a law to build and expand toll roads, lawmakers largely scrapped the plan during this year’s session. That included nixing the idea of building a toll road from Collier County to Polk County. Lawmakers, however, decided to move forward with projects such as extending Florida’s Turnpike west from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway.
TRANSGENDER ATHLETES: After the issue appeared dead in the Senate, lawmakers in the final days of the session passed a bill that would ban transgender female athletes from competing on high-school girls’ and college women’s sports teams. While bill supporters said transgender female athletes could have a physical advantage, opponents said the bill targets youths already at risk for suicide, ostracism and bullying.