Lawmakers begin their trek toward the 2020 session, talking budget, guns, hurricanes and more

Gov. Ron DeSantis, flanked by Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker Jose Oliva at the end of the 2019 Florida legislative session in early May. Photo by governor's press office.

They’re back.

Florida lawmakers begin preparing for the 2020 legislative session on Monday, holding their first set of committee hearings this week. They’ll continue a series of meetings over the next four months, in preparation for the annual 60-day session, which opens Jan. 14.

Lobbyists, advocacy groups, taxpayers and political gurus — 2020 will be a big political year — can expect to see the Legislature continue controversial debates over school safety, gun violence, environment-water initiatives, state prisons and hurricane recovery. Mental health, smoking and vaping, Hepatitis A, opioid addiction and medical marijuana also will be part of the lineup.

At the top of their agenda, though, is the one thing lawmakers must approve before their scheduled March 13 session ends. That’s the state budget, which funds everything from the state’s public schools to roads, health care, and the environment.

Legislators will likely craft and pass a $91 billion-plus budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Money might be tighter?

However, preliminary estimates from state economists show that money may be tighter in the new budget year, based on the possibility of an economic slowdown.

“We’re going to have a very constrained, modest approach to budgeting this year,” said Senate budget chief Rob Bradley, a Clay County Republican. “One of the things that we need to be mindful of is … an economic uptick doesn’t last forever.

FL Legislature Budget chairmen Travis Cummings (left) and Rob Bradley talk to reporters about state 2019 budget negotiations. LLoyd Dunkelberger photo.

“And there are signs from some economists that the economy may slow down a little bit in the upcoming years. So, I think in order to prepare for that, we don’t need to be adding a bunch of new spending. We don’t need to be adding a bunch of new programming. We need to stick to the basics and focus on our critical needs,” Bradley said.

An additional budget factor is the lack of a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe. A prior agreement, which generated more than $300 million a year, ended in the spring. And Bradley says lawmakers are in no rush to revive an accord if it is not favorable to the state’s interests.

“We just as soon not have a deal if it’s a bad deal, and so that’s where we are right now. We’re going to go ahead and build our budgets without being beholden to tribe money,” he said.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will be heading into his second legislative session, will advance his own state budget proposals before the end of the year. He has already outlined a plan to increase environmental spending by $625 million over the next three years, with a focus on improving water quality.

DeSantis is also looking at a plan to boost teacher pay, which he is expected to announce sometime this fall.

Teacher salaries vs bonuses and the continued gun debate

Bradley says there have been some discussions about teacher pay. He notes lawmakers boosted per-student funding for this academic year, though it is up to individual school districts to decide whether to use that money for a salary increase or other education needs.

Bradley says one idea under consideration would be changing the current “Best and Brightest” program, which awards bonuses to high-performing teachers, to a more traditional salary plan. Many educators and Florida Education Association officials prefer regular salaries rather than one-time bonuses.

“I think it’s something that we need to seriously discuss this session,” Bradley said.

The Florida Phoenix examined the issue of teacher pay and bonuses in this story.

Lawmakers will also continue their debate over the prospect of more mass shootings, school safety and gun violence in the 2020 session.

Following tragedies in Texas and Ohio last month, Senate President Bill Galvano said in a memo to senators that the Senate will be looking “to review and better understand the various factors involved in mass shootings.”

“This includes white nationalism, which appears to be a factor not only with regard to these recent mass shootings, but also with other acts of violence we have seen across the country in recent years,” the Bradenton Republican said.

The Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee is scheduled to begin that review today, with an afternoon hearing that will feature academic experts, law enforcement officials and mental-health experts.

Democrats, who are in the minority in the House and Senate, will continue to push for more gun-control legislation.

“Whether the massacre unfolded in El Paso, Dayton, or Las Vegas, Newtown, Parkland, or Pulse, the one inescapable common thread that has bound each and every one of these horrific mass shootings is the presence of an assault weapon,” Sen. Audrey Gibson, the Jacksonville lawmaker who leads the Senate Democrats, said in a statement.

The Democratic proposals include a ban on assault weapons and background checks for guns sold privately. They are also pushing a broadened “red flag” law that would allow family members to seek a court order to take away a gun from someone who might be a threat to others. Florida’s current law restricts that ability to law enforcement members.

Healthy reserves and no new taxes

With Florida having narrowly escaped a major impact from Hurricane Dorian, Bradley and House budget chief Travis Cummings, a Clay County Republican, say lawmakers will continue to deal with the state’s hurricane recovery efforts.

One possibility would be lawmakers setting aside some money each year in the budget in anticipation of the need for increased state spending in the wake of a major storm.

An area of strength in the state budget is the current $3.8 billion in reserve funds. It is one-time money that can be used for such things as a storm response or helping the state offset the immediate impact of an economic downturn.

In addition to keeping healthy budget reserves, the Republican-majority Legislature and Republican governor will also remain firm in their opposition to tax increases.

“Florida has staked a reputation as a tax friendly state, as a conservative budgeting state,” Bradley said. “We’re proud of that reputation. It’s central to why we’ve had such robust economic growth and population growth. And we will continue on that course.”

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