Politics and money: FL special session to cover Idalia relief, expand vouchers, support Israel

By: , and - November 3, 2023 4:59 pm

Florida’s Old Capitol and New Capitol, viewed from the Leon County Courthouse on March 21, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

Against the backdrop of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign and a war thousands of miles away, the Florida Legislature will launch a special session starting Monday about politics and money, with a list of bills from Idalia relief to voucher expansion and support for Israel.

DeSantis, who likes to brag about being the country’s most pro-Israel governor, has intimated on occasion that he called the Legislature back to Tallahassee for the third time this year and just 10 weeks before the regular session is set to begin in January. House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo did the actual deed, but said they consulted with the governor.

The Israel-Hamas war is perhaps the most emotionally charged matter that lawmakers will confront, including domestic spillover in the form of heightened antisemitism and hate crimes against Palestinian-Americans. DeSantis instructed Florida’s state university system to kick off campus any Palestinian student groups deemed to seek Israel’s destruction.

But there are plenty more emotions to play with, including a punishing series of natural disasters, skyrocketing insurance costs, and school vouchers. The session is scheduled from Nov. 6-9.

Idalia relief

Hurricane Idalia damage on the Taylor County coast, via Lynette Senter

The Legislature could shell out about $500 million for Hurricane Idalia relief. Most of that money, $176,170,000, would go to fund the My Florida Safe Home Program. Through it, people can get up to $10,000 to make their houses resistant to strong winds, flooding, and debris. The program is meant to help homeowners lower the cost of their insurance.

“I look forward to further conversations about this important program during the regular session as we continue to evaluate ways to strengthen our infrastructure against storm damage while stabilizing and lowering insurance costs,” Senate President Kathleen Passidomo wrote in a press release on Nov. 2. 

Republican Sen. Corey Simon from the Big Bend region filed SB 2C, which is set to be discussed during the Fiscal Policy Committee meeting on Monday. The House version filed by Big Bend Republican Jason Shoaf, HB 1C, is scheduled for the Appropriations Committee agenda Monday afternoon.

The second-highest sum of the proposals, $75 million, would be allotted to a loan program for farmers to recover after a natural disaster. Each farmer is eligible to receive up to $500,000 through the low-interest loan program. The Senate staff analysis of the bill indicates that Idalia affected more than 3.3 million acres of agricultural lands. Tax exceptions and refunds would also be given to farmers rebuilding structures and fences damaged during the Aug. 30 phenomenon. 

Timber landowners would be eligible for a cost-sharing program to rebuild their businesses, which would receive $37.5 million if either bill gets approved. The remainder of the funds would be distributed to counties where Hurricane Idalia caused damage. Both proposals fund transportation, housing, infrastructure, and emergency operations recovery programs within counties that span from the Big Bend to Tampa Bay.   

Vouchers for students with disabilities

Florida’s legislative leaders aim to increase the number of school vouchers the state can award to students with disabilities after 2023’s regular session made Florida’s education system the largest provider of school vouchers in the country. However, thousands of children are on the waitlist.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA) was established in 2021 as the offspring of the McKay Scholarship Program, which served disabled students in Florida for decades. The FES-UA provides vouchers of at least $10,000 for disabled students to find alternative public schooling or receive funds in an education savings account.

A crowd sits during a subcommittee meeting discussing an expansion for “vouchers” using taxpayer dollars. Even rich families could participate. Jan. 26, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Two proposed bills — SB 4C and HB 3C — would remove the mandatory cap on students eligible for those vouchers this school year and allow the Department of Education and its partner scholarship funding organizations to determine it.

The bill analysis does not predict how many more students could receive vouchers. The Florida Policy Insitute said in a statement Thursday that more than 8,000 kids are on the waitlist.

Institute CEO Sadaf Knight decried the proposed legislation for being unclear about how the increased number of vouchers will be funded.  The bill will not require an additional appropriation, according to the bill analysis, and funding for additional students would come from the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), the biggest pot of public school funding in the state budget. 

The bill analysis claims there won’t be any need for additional funding, as the cost to provide vouchers to additional students can come from the $350 million earmarked for the Educational Enrollment Stabilization Program, created in 2023 to help public schools maintain financial stability if they see surges in full-time student enrollment.

“What happens if the [FES-UA] cap is lifted and costs for the other voucher programs, Educational Options and Personalized Education Plan vouchers for home-schoolers, exceed the amount lawmakers have allocated for cost overruns?” Knight said.

Iran sanctions

Although the Biden administration says it’s found no direct link between Iran and the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, the Islamic Republic supports the group and others devoted to Israel’s destruction.

HB 5C and SB 10C would redesignate an existing program targeting investments in Iran’s petroleum sector as the Scrutinized Companies with Activities in Iran Terrorism Sectors List.

The bill targets companies that after Jan. 10, 2024, trace more than 10% of their revenues or assets in the Iranian energy, petrochemical, financial, construction, manufacturing, textile, mining, metals, shipping, shipbuilding, or port sectors. It also targets companies with investments of $20 million or more in those sectors of the Iranian economy.

“Following the horrific atrocities committed by Iranian-backed terrorist group Hamas against Israel, I am calling on the Florida Legislature to act swiftly to ensure our state does not send a penny to the Iranian terror state,” DeSantis said in a written statement endorsing the idea on Oct 20.

“While our laws already have strong sanctions against regimes that support terrorism, a conflict of this scale certainly warrants a fresh look at further steps we can take to strengthen existing sanctions against the Islamic Republican of Iran and other state and corporate sponsors of terror,” Passidomo wrote to her senators.

“We can, and we must, do everything within our authority as a state government to support Israel and condemn terror, hatred, and violence,” she added.

A legislative analysis notes that the measure may face constitutional problems to the extent it usurps the federal government’s primacy in foreign relations.

“There is an exception to the Commerce Clause when a state acts as a market participant rather than a regulator, which generally applies when a state is acting in its proprietary capacity to spend or invest funds in a manner that comports with the economic or ideological sentiments of its citizens,” the analysis says.

However, “the state is still prohibited from imposing conditions that have a substantial regulatory effect outside of the particular market in which it operates.”

Protecting Jewish Day Schools

Rep. Randy Fine (R-Brevard) filed a bill Thursday to “allocate $35 million in emergency funding to protect Florida’s Jewish day schools, synagogues, Holocaust museums, and cultural centers,” the representative posted on X, formally Twitter.

Fine made national headlines when he broke off his alliance with DeSantis to endorse Donald Trump for president over what he said was the governor’s lack of support for Jewish people.

HB 7C and its Senate companion, SB 6C, would amend how Florida uses its federal Nonprofit Security Grant, meant to provide funding for physical security to nonprofit organizations against terrorist attacks. 

The bill would appropriate $35 million from the state’s general revenue fund: $10 million to the Florida Department of Emergency Management to implement the security grants and $25 million for grants to Jewish day schools and Jewish preschools for enhanced security, according to the bill analysis.

Support for Israel

Both Florida Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature have largely united behind Israel in the conflict with Hamas. Two Democrats from Palm Beach, Sen. Lori Berman and Rep. Katherine Waldron, filed the resolutions supporting Israel, though they have different tones.

The Senate version more vocally condemns threats against Jews from militant groups such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran, and other persons targeting Jews. Meanwhile, the House resolution doesn’t mention Iran or Hezbollah.

“The Iranian regime provides financial and logistical support to such terrorist groups as Hamas and Hezbollah and has praised these recent unconscionable atrocities committed against innocent civilians,” the Senate resolution states. “The State of Florida recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist as a sovereign and independent nation, and the right and obligation to defend itself, with the full rights and privileges afforded to all nations under international law.”

While Waldron’s resolution also expresses solidarity with Israel’s right to defend itself, it is one page shorter. The reason for the length difference is that the Senate resolution also demands an end to financial support of Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah, and entities that support the attacks against Israel.

Neither resolution mentions the deaths of Palestinian civilians.

Regardless of which resolution the Legislature adopts, a copy of it will be given to members of Florida’s Delegation in Congress and the Israel Ambassador to the U.S. The bills on this issue are SR 8C and HR 9C.

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Christian Casale
Christian Casale

Christian covers education, politics, and whatever else interests him for the Florida Phoenix. He has previously worked as a reporter and editor with the Independent Florida Alligator.

Jackie Llanos
Jackie Llanos

Jackie is a recent graduate of the University of Richmond. She has interned at Nashville Public Radio, Virginia Public Media and Virginia Mercury.

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.