The 2021 Florida Legislature convenes March 2 under COVID-19 restrictions. Here, the working Capitol appears behind the Historic Capitol Museum. Credit: Colin Hackley
The Florida Legislature convenes today for a two-month-long session expected to be loaded with campaign-style theatrics ahead of 2022 elections and partisan debate over how to handle Florida’s coronavirus-related economic and public-health crises.
The Senate convenes at 9:30 a.m. to get settled, and the House at 10 a.m., ahead of a joint session at 11, during which Gov. Ron DeSantis will deliver the annual State of the State speech, outlining his agenda for the regular session.
Getting Florida back to work and getting school-age children back into classrooms are tagged as top priorities, but the approaches that Republicans and Democrats will take are likely to clash.
Through Monday, COVID-19 had killed nearly 31,000 Floridians and sickened 1.9 million, according to the state Department of Health.
Already poised for passage is a Republican-sponsored, pro-business bill to shield companies from liability in the event their employees or customers contract COVID-19 in their places of business. Sponsors assert that threats of litigation will threaten economic recovery. Labor advocates say the shield provides blanket immunity that will leave workers with no recourse to the courts if their bosses neglect to keep them safe.
DeSantis and GOP leaders say the liability shield and other business-friendly practices will accelerate the resumption of commerce and whip Florida’s economy back into pre-pandemic shape. Betting that Florida will recover quickly, the governor has proposed an ambitious $96.6 billion budget for 2021-22, which exceeds last year’s budget by $4.3 billion. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives and the Senate are still looking for budget cuts, while some are looking for new revenue, including collecting sales taxes on e-commerce, a source of roughly $1 billion in income that has long gone uncollected lest it be mistaken for a tax increase.
Teachers and state regulators continue to argue about safety in classrooms, while thousands of students still attend school remotely online and tens of thousands are simply unaccounted for. When you add in concerns about how students have fared since the pandemic upended Florida schools, and the recurring annual argument over private-school vouchers, education promises to be a hot spot for lawmakers.
Few could have imagined the coronavirus pandemic would persist for more than a year, leaving hundreds of thousands of Floridians still, or again, unemployed and struggling. Many are facing financial ruin, utilities disconnections, and even evictions due to inability to pay. Even the system that pays unemployment benefits is broken, with the cost of a permanent fix estimated at $244 million over the next five years, atop what was spent in 2020 on patches. Facing dual emergencies — one economic, one of public health — Democrats and Republicans will be at odds, with working-class families caught in between.
While the pandemic raged, 2020 also saw historic levels of civil unrest over the police killings of unarmed black people, including George Floyd and Brianna Taylor. Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus is demanding reforms this session to weed out bad cops and keep minorities safe. Republican leaders including the governor and House Speaker Chris Sprowls have taken decidedly pro-police stances. None of the Black Caucus bills have been scheduled for hearings, although caucus members insist the reforms can’t wait.
Could the Legislature’s failure to respond to Black Floridians’ demand for reforms essential to their well-being have anything to do with the institution’s failure to promote Black lawmakers? Blacks are represented in the House and Senate at close to their proportion of the population, but largely are absent from top leadership positions in legislative committees such as chairs and vice chairs — powerful roles in the legislative process. A big part of the problem is that they tend to be Democrats, and Republicans run both chambers.
Also in terms of minorities, the head of Florida’s prison system, disproportionately full of Black inmates, says the system is in danger of collapse due to under-staffing. Reformers want to reduce prison populations by giving offenders alternate forms of supervision, while law-and-order advocates insist prison is the best place for them.
While Gov. DeSantis by all accounts is “greener” than former Gov. Rick Scott, climate scientists are alarmed at how much damage climate change is causing in Florida, including chronic flooding, extreme heat, and more intense hurricanes. Republicans who control the House and the Senate, along with DeSantis, acknowledge that sea-level rise is occurring and aim to invest this year in armoring the coastlines. But Democrats point to scientific evidence that making flood-prone cities more “resilient” to sea-level rise will do nothing to reduce the cause of the problem: greenhouse gas emissions caused by Florida’s use of dirty fuels.
To be sure, campaign-style tactics will be in full view, with the governor and scores of legislators up for re-election next year. During a campaign event two weeks ago, DeSantis tossed out a buffet of “red meat” issues that sorely divided Democrats and Republicans during the Trump administration, from impugning mail-in balloting to railing against “Big Tech” social-media platforms for censoring speech they deem incendiary, namely Twitter’s suspension of Trump’s account after the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The League of Women Voters of Florida says DeSantis is peddling “disinformation” about elections that in fact went very smoothly in Florida and that he prolongs the pandemic by not wearing a face mask at his highly publicized events. But again with 2022 in mind, those tactics play well among certain voters.
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