Florida’s 61-day legislative session is over, and Republican conservatives got what they hoped for

By: - May 4, 2019 4:06 pm
Florida Capitol

The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo, Colin Hackley

Florida lawmakers passed a $91.1 billion state budget on Saturday, ending an annual session dominated by a conservative Republican agenda.

The Legislature used the 61-day session to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Lawmakers erected new barriers for felons seeking the right to vote under a constitutional amendment approved by voters last year. The Legislature endorsed arming teachers in school classrooms. Lawmakers backed the expansion of publicly funded vouchers to send more students to private schools using tax dollars. They passed measures to restrict local government rights and foist new, mandated costs onto locals.

In a late-night move on Friday, the Legislature approved a measure to make more difficult and costly for citizens to collect voter signatures to get state Constitutional Amendments on the ballot. It could impact current amendment drives for 2020 seeking to ban assault weapons, expand Medicaid and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The restrictions on Constitutional Amendment campaigns drew a strong rebuke from Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who is backing the minimum-wage drive and led the successful amendment drive to legalize medical marijuana.

“These jokers are so owned by special interests that they actually thumbed their noses at democracy and the people,” Morgan tweeted on Saturday. “It is why we hate politicians with a special vengeance! But this won’t ‘blunt’ me. All I do is win win win!!”

Morgan’s criticism contrasted with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican legislative leaders, who declared the lawmaking session a success.

“All in all, I think there were some historic achievements here. A lot of what I campaigned on, we’ve already accomplished,” said DeSantis, a former congressman in his first year as governor.

Among the governor’s wins was legislation ( opposed by the pharmaceutical industry), that will allow Florida to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. The federal government must approve the plan first.

DeSantis also pointed to $687 million in water supply and environmental engineering projects for the Everglades and elsewhere in the new budget, which was more than his request of  $625 million. He said he was pleased by the boost in public school funding, which he said represents a $243 per-student increase (see our story which looks closer at that claim.)

Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, was the prime supporter of  a multi-billion-dollar plan that seeks to build three major toll roads in rural areas of the state. Environmental groups are calling on DeSantis to veto the legislation.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami-Dade County Republican, put health-care reforms at the top of his agenda. And the lawmaking session saw the Canadian prescription drug program pass, as well as legislation that cuts key regulations long enforced in Florida that require new hospitals and other medical facilities to prove there’s a need for their services in a given community.

The state budget, which takes effect on July 1, won nearly unanimous approval from lawmakers. The measure (SB 2500) passed 38-0 in the Senate and only two Democrats voted against it in the House.

DeSantis indicated that he will be trimming back some of the spending with his line-item veto power once he receives the budget bill.

“It’s going to be under 91 (billion dollars) when I get through with the budget. Don’t worry about that,” he said.

Nearly 3,500 bills and resolutions were filed for the 2019 session, including more than 1,600 bills related to budget projects. In the end, 194 bills were passed, legislative records show.

DeSantis will have 15 days to act on each measure, including the budget bill, once he receives them.

In a statement, Florida Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson reflected her party’s frustration with the 2019 Legislature.

“Unfortunately, the ideology embraced by less than half of Florida’s voters drove much of the policy changes we saw this legislative session,” Gibson said, referring to the state’s sharp political division. “Nowhere was this more evident than in the final weeks. It’s a sad commentary on how far the legislature has strayed from its core responsibility to represent the many voices of the people throughout our diverse state.”

“The Republican-led legislature stripped the power of citizens to seek change through ballot initiatives, they stymied the straightforward pathway Floridians had approved by which felons had regained the right to vote, and they ignored the hundreds of students, educators and parents who had said in one clear and unmistakable voice: Do Not Arm Our Teachers.”

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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.