Gov. Ron DeSantis will deliver his inaugural State of The State address before a joint session of the State Legislature in the Capitol at 11 a.m. Tuesday, officially kicking off the 60-day legislative session in Tallahassee.
By early afternoon Tuesday, many of the Senate’s 19 committees and five appropriations subcommittees, and many more of the House’s nine committees and 24 subcommittees, will be whittling away at the 3,289 bills pre-filed by mid-afternoon Monday.
Both chambers open with bills ready for floor votes following five “interim committee weeks” that generated 27 days of pre-session legislative activity since December.
Some House and Senate panels have met as many as four times since December, slicing through assorted proposals to get vetted bills onto chamber floors for binding votes once the session convenes – as soon as Tuesday.
The recently turned 40-year-old DeSantis will address a Legislature that will remain as it has been for more than 20 years: Republican-controlled.
Republicans hold a 73-47 majority in the House, down from their 76-41 advantage in 2018. The GOP will have a 23-17 majority in Senate, little change from its 23-16 advantage in 2018.
But the Legislature DeSantis – a newcomer to state government following three terms in Congress – will address on Tuesday also will be unlike any other, with 66 of 160 elected members, like him, fresh faces in Tallahassee.
The 46 new House members – 24 Republicans, 22 Democrats – is the second-highest number of new state reps since voters sent 63 to Tallahassee in 2000.
Among the Senate’s 20 freshmen, half its 40-member body, the most new senators in state history – 11 are Democrats and nine are Republicans.
How receptive the Legislature – one-third of its members are Tallahassee first-timers – will be to the new administration’s proposed budget, or spending request, is among an undercurrent of themes of the pending session.
The governor’s spending request is generally the game plan in charting budget deliberations. Last year, then-Gov. Rick Scott proposed an $87.4 billion spending plan. The Legislature ultimately approved an $88.7 billion budget.
DeSantis’s proposed $91.3 billion spending plan, dubbed “Bold Vision for a Brighter Future,” is a $2.6 billion increase over this year’s budget.
It includes $29.1 billion for health care, $21.7 billion for public school funding, $9 billion for infrastructure and $625 million in environmental spending – the first component of a $2.5 billion, four-year investment in addressing the Lake Okeechobee blue-green algae and red tide.
DeSantis’ budget request and pre-filed bill trends among lawmakers appear to reflect Florida voters’ chief concerns, according to a poll released Monday by the University of North Florida Public Opinion Research Lab.
Among survey respondents, education (19 percent), the environment (18 percent) and health care (17) were cited as voters’ top three priorities for the 2019 legislative session.
DeSantis’ $21.7 billion FY20 education budget request seeks a $422.97 million revision of the “Best And Brightest’ teacher bonus program and to expand the state’s school choice options.
As the nation’s largest school choice program, 99,453 Florida students are enrolled in 1,799 private schools paid for by corporate contributions through the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) program. It has a waiting list of nearly 14,000 students.
Two-thirds who received the scholarships this year – more than 70,000 – are African American or Hispanic with an average household income of $25,756. The federal poverty guideline is $25,750 for a family of four.
DeSantis wants to grow the FTC program through a proposed “Equal Opportunity Scholarship,” which would make students with family household incomes that exceed the federal poverty guideline by up to 265 percent, up to $68,000, eligible for school choice vouchers.
The Senate has countered with a “Family Empowerment Scholarship” that would expand eligibility to students with household incomes exceeding the federal poverty guideline by up to 260 percent – $67,000 for a family of four.
DeSantis’ proposed Medicaid budget allocates $29.1 billion to the state Agency for Health Care Administration, which manages the state’s Medicaid program, one of the nation’s largest with an estimated 3.91 million people enrolled.
His plan would make permanent a $98 million reduction in Medicaid spending backed last year by the Legislature that reduced “retroactivity” – or pre-existing condition eligibility – from 90 days to 30 days.
According to the AHCA, the “retroactivity” revision will impact services for an estimated 39,000 elderly and disabled Medicaid patients. Lawmakers’ proposals with recommended remedies are among the more than 110 pre-filed 2019 bills that address Medicaid in some way.
While DeSantis’ health care budget request is mostly a carryover from this year’s spending plan, it does feature one innovative call that has spurred companion House and Senate bills.
DeSantis wants to create a state-sanctioned wholesale importation program to allow Floridians to purchase FDA-approved, lower-cost drugs.
House Bill 19, sponsored by Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, and Senate Bill 1452, filed by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, both call on the AHCA to “establish a program for the importation of safe and effective prescription drugs.”
More than 60 gun control/red flag 2019 bills have been filed. Few are likely to pass but the fact that such legislation – including proposed “assault weapons” bans and concealed carry restrictions – is being introduced and, in some cases heard, is an emerging dynamic for lawmakers to consider, especially Republicans with “purple” constituencies.
In addition to meeting DeSantis’ ultimatum to lift the ban on smokable medical marijuana by March 15 – Senate and House proposals are ready for floor debate – lawmakers are expected to engage in heated deliberations early in the session when bills proposing to allow classroom teachers with concealed carry permits be allowed to carry firearms on campus make it into chamber floors.
Desantis earmarks $1.9 billion in his budget request for Hurricane Michael recovery assistance. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, warns Michael could have a $2.7 billion impact on the state’s budget.
Assessing the damage from the near-Cat 5 storm that ravaged the Panhandle on Oct. 10, only 13 months after Hurricane Irma left widespread damage across the state, is also an immediate priority because filling the associated hole it leaves in anticipated allocations will affect a wide range of programs and services.
By noon Monday, legislators had filed more than 71 Hurricane Michael-related bills. Those filed in the House top more than $600 million in total funding requests.