Heading into a critical election year, the Republican-dominated Legislature used the annual session to advance conservative measures that dovetail with President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
In addition to a $93.2 billion state budget, lawmakers spent the last 67 days to impose new work restrictions on undocumented immigrants and erect new barriers for citizen groups seeking to amend the state Constitution.
They also passed new limits on abortions, making Florida one of a handful of states requiring both parental notification and consent when a teen seeks the medical procedure.
The Florida Democratic Party called the measures “an extreme and radical agenda that hurt people across the state.”
Most major Democrat-backed bills, including measures on gun control and health care, did not advance. In many cases, particularly in the House, the bills didn’t even receive a hearing.
Meanwhile, the eruption of the COVID-19 crisis underscores the vulnerability of many Floridians when it comes to health care.
In 2018, some 2.7 million Floridians – or 13 percent of the population – did not have health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Democrats and other health-care advocates have urged Florida to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act — which Trump has attacked repeatedly — to improve medical coverage in the nation’s third-largest state.
But the Republican-led Legislature has refused to consider that, leaving Florida one of 14 states without Medicaid expansion.
Health care is considered a top campaign issue in 2020, and Democratic presidential candidates have been debating the topic for months, leading up to Florida’s presidential primary election this week.
Joe Biden, vice president when President Barack Obama pushed through the Affordable Care Act, is the Democratic front-runner, and would expect to battle Trump on expanding health care for more Americans.
In the legislative session, Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami-Dade County Democrat, and Rep. Cindy Polo, a Miramar Democrat, sought to put Medicaid expansion on the November ballot to let voters decide the issue, but they did not receive a hearing.
Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo has criticized both Trump and the Florida Republican leadership for failing to back Medicaid expansion and other health-care initiatives.
“The importance of having access to health care is made all the more clear by the impact the coronavirus outbreak is already having on our communities and our economy,” Rizzo said in a statement. “It’s impossible to have a thriving and stable country, state, or community if people are sick or scared for their health or the health of their family and friends.”
Another setback for the Democrats was on gun-control legislation, including a ban on assault weapons.
“Year after year, Democrats file gun safety bills that are repeatedly ignored by GOP leadership,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat.
That dynamic reoccurred in the 2020 session, although the Senate debated and advanced legislation that would have closed the so-called “gun show loophole,” which allows private gun sales to take place without a background check. But the measure eventually stalled before a floor vote.
Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, said in late February that the Senate dropped its effort to pass the bill because of strong opposition in the Florida House. The National Rifle Association also vehemently objected to the measure.
There was bipartisan support for legislation making it illegal for an employer to fire a worker because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
But the “Florida Competitive Workforce Act,” which would expand the 1992 state civil rights act to include LGBTQ protections in the workplace, public housing and accommodations, was another proposal that didn’t receive a hearing in either the Senate or House.
Democrats backed legislation (HB 1389) that would have allowed the adult use of marijuana. Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg sponsored the Senate version (SB 1860).
But neither measure received a hearing in the session. But cannabis supporters were successful in opposing a House measure that would have limited the potency of medical marijuana by imposing a 10 percent cap on tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical agent that causes the high.
A Democrat proposal (SB 254) to provide a tax rebate to Florida’s working poor did receive a hearing in the Senate. The legislation sought to provide a tax rebate, in the range of $250 a year, to low-income workers by providing state tax relief based on the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.
State tax officials testified that its implementation would be difficult, since Florida does not have a personal income tax, but could be accomplished. However, the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, that would have required a state study on the issue died in the Senate.
But while much of the Democrat-backed legislation failed in the 2020 session, the Democrats and their allies were successful in opposing several major bills that failed.
One measure (HB 1) would have added new bureaucratic hurdles for teachers, police officers and other public workers if they want to remain in a public-employee union. Labeled a “union busting” measure by its critics, the bill passed the House but was never heard in the Senate.
Another bill (HB 1365) would have made it a crime for doctors to provide medical care to youths seeking gender-reassignment treatment. A House committee held a workshop on the issue, but the bill never advanced any further. A similar measured died in the Senate without a hearing.