With billions of dollars at stake and a dynamic cast of characters swarming the Capitol, the Florida Legislature will begin its annual session on Tuesday, facing a host of politically volatile issues ranging from abortion to gun control.
Republicans — who hold a 23-17 seat advantage in the Senate and a 73-43 edge in House — will dictate the legislative agenda, which will have a conservative tilt.
Democrats in the minority will try to tout their own priorities.
And lobbyists and advocates will push for their own agendas, including pay increases for teachers and school staff as well as state workers.
GOP lawmakers are expected to support proposals by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis – though not in every case. This will be the second regular session for DeSantis, a former member of Congress, and he could face some resistance this year.
For example, DeSantis is pushing an ambitious plan to boost starting teacher salaries to $47,500 a year – which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
That’s a lot of taxpayer money.
House leaders have already warned that they will be taking a conservative approach to major spending requests, which would include boosting teacher salaries.
In a recent radio interview, House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami-Dade County Republican, said he expects lawmakers to continue to follow a path of “fiscal responsibility.”
In another instance, DeSantis supports legislation requiring Florida businesses to use the so-called federal E-Verify system to make sure employees are legal residents.
“It’s long standing federal law that in order to be eligible for employment you have to be here lawfully,” DeSantis said at a November press conference in The Villages, a conservative retirement haven.
But Senate leaders have made it clear that the measure will face strong resistance in their chamber.
“I’ve had many senators that have raised concerns about the additional obligations being placed on private employers and private citizens,” said Republican Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton, who spoke with reporters in a pre-session interview last month.
DeSantis and GOP lawmakers are united on legislation that will add new legal barriers to women under the age of 18 seeking an abortion.
The House is ready for a floor vote on the measure (HB 265) that will require minors to have the consent of either a parent or legal guardian before they have an abortion. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear the bill (SB 404) on Wednesday, with the expectation of a favorable vote.
If passed, and signed into law, Florida will become one of only six states that require both parental consent and notification when teenagers seek an abortion. Here is a Florida Phoenix story on the legislation.
In a state that has witnessed a series of mass shootings — including the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County — lawmakers will again debate new gun-control efforts.
Senate President Galvano said the Senate is open to looking at issues such as the so-called “gun show loophole,” where private gun sales are made without the normal federal background checks.
The Senate will also look at the possible expansion of the state’s “red flag” law that allows guns to be confiscated from potentially dangerous individuals after a court review.
But any gun-control measures will face opposition in the House, where the conservative majority views most of the proposals as restricting gun-ownership rights.
On the state budget front, lawmakers will be setting Florida’s priorities and divvying up billions as they build a state budget for fiscal year 2020-21.
That will include bringing home the bacon for constituents and political donors, whether that’s a road project, school improvements, community centers, museums or other pet projects that lawmakers will push to add to the massive state budget.
The new state budget which will take effect July 1.
DeSantis advanced a $91.4 billion spending plan for 2020-21 in November, with a key feature being nearly $1 billion in pay increases for teachers, including his plan for a $47,500 starting salary. Here is a Florida Phoenix story on the governor’s pay plan.
Details of the pay package will not likely be settled until the final days of the session.
In his recent conservative radio interview, House Speaker Oliva said the new state budget will continue to reflect the philosophy of spending “within our means.”
He said: “What can be seen clearly throughout the nation is that those states that hold true to conservative principles are fiscally sound states that are doing very well.”
Similar-sized states facing more economic or budget challenges have a different philosophy about the role of government spending, Oliva said.
“The reason they’re having a hard time is because their economic policies are about not controlling spending but seeing how they can generate more revenue,” he said. “And there’s only so much that you can take from people before you really start to weaken your economy.”
Another policy involved in the budget debate is DeSantis’ request to fully fund a $387 million affordable housing program. The Senate supports the governor, while House leaders say they again are likely to propose shifting some of the housing money to other areas of the budget.
Democrats in the Legislature will use the session to advance their own agenda, although most of it is not likely to prevail in the Republican-led Legislature.
They support teacher pay raises, more gun control, affordable housing, environmental initiatives such as the Florida Forever land-buying program and the expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor and disabled.
Florida remains one of 14 states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Democratic lawmakers say they will present their own agenda on Tuesday, shortly after DeSantis delivers his second “state of the state” address.
“The tone deaf majority has lorded over our state government for some twenty years plus and has failed to lead on the issues that matter to everyday Floridians,” Senate Democratic leader Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville said in a statement.
“Rather than insuring healthcare for all, the majority instead pushes poor people into the street with no place to go when they are sick or need medical treatment; allows for the lack of accountability in education; and has dragged their feet on addressing climate change. Instead, the bend has been towards those with buckets of money,” Gibson said.
The session is scheduled to end on March 13, just four days before Floridians go to the polls in a presidential primary election that could likely lead to an epic presidential race.
However, legislative leaders say they don’t expect the 60-day session to become a battleground for national politics.
“We operate focused on issues that are pertinent to the state,” said Senate President Galvano. The political divisiveness that has characterized Washington, D.C., has “not filtered down here.”