House GOP rolls over Democrats to advance DeSantis’ turf war with Biden

Bills countermanding vaccine mandate could pass as soon as Wednesday

By: - November 16, 2021 5:16 pm

State Rep. Erin Grall debates a point on the House floor as Speaker Chris Sprowls looks on in this file photo. Credit: Florida House

The Florida Legislature is on track to wind up its special session on COVID vaccine mandates, and deliver a political win to Gov. Ron DeSantis, as soon as Wednesday after House Republicans blocked Democratic efforts to adjust the governor’s priorities.

Dozens of amendments to the four bills sought by the governor fell Tuesday either to floor votes or to rulings by House Speaker Christ Sprowls that they would affect matters not included in the governor’s executive order convening the special session, which isn’t allowed under the rules.

That set the stage for a floor vote on the merits of DeSantis’ bill package.

“Tomorrow we will begin session at 8 a.m. We anticipate completing our business around 1:30 in the afternoon,” Sprowls told his members. After that, “we do not anticipate that we will need to have you come back.”

Once the House passes the package it would head to the Senate, which, as of Tuesday evening, was scheduled to sit from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Chances anything might interfere with the Republican leadership’s plan to send the legislation for the governor’s signature seem remote, given Republicans’ refusal to accept a single amendment in House or Senate committee meetings or on the House floor since the special session opened on Monday.

House Democrats lamented their inability to add language adding an education program regarding the danger of COVID to pregnant women and providing reemployment assistance to workers fleeing lax COVID safeguards at their workplaces or who leave to care for loved ones with COVID — to name just a few of their goals.

“You weren’t even able to hear some of those amendments because of just how partisan this process can get when it comes to anything Gov. DeSantis wants to do,” Fentrice Driskell, policy chief for the Democratic caucus, said during a post-floor session news conference.

“This is not a well-vetted piece of legislation. None of these are,” Anna Eskamani of Orange County said of the package. “It just kind of speaks to the mistakes and problems that happen when you legislate culture wars.”

DeSantis himself, who has been milking his confrontation for political advantage as he campaigns for reelection next year (and maybe for president in 2024)  has been traveling the state this week, leaving the mechanics to his allies in the Legislature.

“Look, I think the special session seems like it’s on track,” he said during a news conference Tuesday in Naples.

He insisted that he doesn’t “dictate to the Legislature.”

“I’ll work with them. I can apply pressure when need be. But, ultimately, they have a role, a constitutional role, and what I’ve done as governor is try to set out key things we need to do, make sure we’re on track with those goals,” DeSantis said.

“But I don’t necessarily micromanage every little thing that happens, follow every committee hearing. I don’t think that that’s necessarily effective. So, my goal, bottom line, on this special session is no Floridian should be losing their job over COVID shots. That’s a personal decision that people should be able to make.”

As legislators debated, the League of Women Voters of Florida sent them a letter warning against intruding on school boards’ authority.

“These proposed laws appear draconian on their face and are counter to legal precedent that an employer is the master or mistress of their working environment. These proposed provisions place employees in charge of employers’ workplaces in a manner never before seen in Florida,” League President Cecile Scoon wrote.

The session poses a direct challenge to the Biden administration’s order that large businesses, federal contractors, and medical providers taking federal Medicare and Medicaid money ensure their workers are vaccinated against COVID. Exceptions would be allowed for medical reasons or if workers agree to regular coronavirus tests.

The main Florida legislation would prohibit worker vaccine mandates entirely for public employees including school personnel and for private employees unless bosses allow exemptions for doctor-endorsed medical reasons including pregnancy and “sincerely held” religious reasons, plus immunity based on having recovered from COVID-19.

As an alternative, workers could agree to undergo coronavirus testing or wear personal protective equipment such as face masks. Those fired under mandates could file complaints with the state attorney general’s office that could bring fines as high as $50,000 and might be eligible for unemployment compensation.

If an employer backs down under pressure from the A.G.’s office, the worker would be eligible for back pay. However, they couldn’t recover attorney fees if they file suit against the employer.

Public schools would be barred from requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID or wear masks; both matters would be for parents to decide.

During floor debate, sponsors stressed that none of the legislation affects existing mandates for vaccination of school children from communicable diseases including measles. An exception is justified for COVID vaccines, they argued, because they don’t impart the same degree of protection as the others — one could still contract or spread COVID even if vaccinated.

These provisions would expire on June 1, 2023. meaning the Legislature would have to revisit the language and account for any changed circumstances with the pandemic, according to sponsors.

The provision “puts in place, really, the obligation on our part as a legislature to come back and say, ‘Is this working? Do we need to keep these laws on the books?” said Republican Erin Grall, representing Indian River and part of St. Lucie County, a cosponsor of the main bill.

One bill, HB 5B, authorizes the governor’s office to undertake a study of whether it makes sense for the state to set up an alternative to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and gives DeSantis $1 million in administrative costs. The administration would report the status of that study by Jan. 17 next year, after the Biden vaccination requirement would take effect if the courts allow it.

The idea is to remove the state from what DeSantis and legislative Republicans see as overweening federal authority. Twenty-two states have such agencies, but they impose workplace standards that go beyond federal standards, not less. In any event, the state can’t create such an agency without federal approval.

Separate legislation would create a public-records exemption for material turned up in those A.G. office investigation of businesses, both during the pendency of the inquiry and afterward. The House voted down a Democratic amendment that would have allowed disclosure unless doing so would jeopardize an active investigation or reveal information about a worker’s health or religious beliefs, or disclosure of aggregate information not identifying individuals.

Joe Geller, representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, who sponsored that amendment, said the bill as written will prevent the public from learning which businesses are committing infractions and how well the state is monitoring them but that Republicans refused to negotiate.

He did note one potential bright spot: The chamber’s 42 Democrats voted unanimously for the amendment. If they stick together on final passage, that could deny the GOP the two-thirds vote necessary to enact exemptions to Florida’s Sunshine Law.

“Why are we up here trying to get something done where they want to take the protection of worker safety away from the federal government that’s been in charge of it and set up an untested program by the same people who couldn’t get unemployment right?” Geller said.

Reporter Issac Morgan contributed to this report.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.