Friday, April 30th, marked the 60th and final day of the 2021 Florida Legislative Session – a session that began during unprecedented health and economic uncertainties as state and global economies scrambled to contain COVID 19 outbreaks and surges while managing the impact to Florida businesses, schools, families, and health care facilities.
The Legislature operated under strict COVID public access restrictions, eliminating in person Senate committee meetings allowing for public testimony from the Leon County Civic Center. The House authorized limited access to committee hearings though a laborious pre-approval and verification program. The legislative process was conducted mostly without in person public access, leaving the halls of the Capitol, typically bustling with advocates, remarkably empty and quiet.
Like much of this year’s legislative work, the 2021 Session adjourned Sine Die with lackluster ceremonial festivities and collegial pomp and circumstance – with the House and Senate voting up on the 2021-22 spending plan totaling $101.5 billion – powered by $10.2 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funding of which the legislature used $6.6 billion and put the rest in reserves. The 2021 budget is almost $10 billion higher than last year’s budget.
Billions of dollars are being devoted to the environment, creating what House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, called “the greenest budget in Florida’s history.” That includes $100 million for the cleanup and closure of the Piney Point phosphate plant that threatened to flood hundreds of Manatee County homes in early April.
More than $750 million is going to maintenance and construction projects for schools, colleges, and universities. Lawmakers avoided cuts to hospital funding, and additional federal dollars allowed the state to pay for the 1 million Floridians who joined the state’s Medicaid rolls during the pandemic. The budget also includes direct payments to many Floridians, requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Teachers, police, firefighters, and paramedics can expect $1,000 bonuses. Many state employees will see raises, thanks to Senate President Wilton Simpson, who pushed to increase the minimum wage in state government to $13 per hour.
Lawmakers also chose to permanently halve the state’s share of affordable housing money, using the rest on flooding projects and wastewater programs. Instead of $423 million for affordable housing this year, the program is getting $209 million.
Lawmakers found $239.8 million to extend Medicaid benefits for new mothers, giving eligible women and their babies a full year of coverage. It is a triumphant blend of compassion with fiscal savvy. Good health care, early in life, can catch many problems before they become expensive and difficult to treat.
Due to the federal infusion, Legislators appropriated $500 million for teacher pay increases, 3% across-the-board pay raises for all state employees, $100 million for Florida Forever, $650 million for water/Everglades, fully funding Visit Florida, and the Sadowski Trust Fund – to name just a few budgetary high notes.
This year there was no shortage of bills filed with a very conservative number passing. In total, the 2021 regular session included:
3,140 Bills and PCBs filed
2,632 Amendments filed
3,788 Votes taken
39 Floor Sessions
29 Preemptions & Mandates
7 Repeals of Preemptions
Only 275 Bills passed both chambers (8.8% of bills filed)
Legislators returned to Tallahassee on May 17 for a special session to approve the ratification of a multi-billion-dollar gaming deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that the governor was instrumental in negotiating. Governor DeSantis has estimated that the agreement would help raise $2.5 billion in new revenue over the next five years and $6 billion through 2030. The arrangement now runs for the next 30 years.
League of Women Voters of Florida Priorities
For the past 60 days, Capitol Alliance Group has made it a priority to accomplish the League of Women Voters of Florida’s top priorities for this session, including election reform, stopping preemption of local governments, reproductive health, education, natural resources, gun reform and expansion of Medicaid.
Each Friday, the League leadership, staff, and issue chairs reviewed priority bills with CAG team members and strategized action plans. The entire legislative advocacy team of Patti Brigham, Blake Summerlin, Leah Nash, Lobby Corps Chair Trish Neely, Lobbyist Jeff Sharkey and Lauren Gallo and many other key participants worked to prioritize top issues and make the League’s voice heard in committee testimony.
We worked closely on issues such as HB 1- Combating Public Disorder a bill, where CAG, Patti Brigham and former Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince had conversations with bill sponsors Representative Fernandez-Barquin on the flaws in the legislation.
This legislative session was unlike any others previously, yet despite the COVID restrictive environment Capitol Alliance Group was able to work side by side with Lobby Corps Chair Trish Neely who provided a strong voice for the League at every committee meeting and giving compelling testimony on key issues. She dedicated weeks of her life for LWVFL and was quoted in media outlets across the state. In addition to Trish, League 1st Vice President Cecile Scoon was also a tremendous help in taking time to review legislation, analyze it and break it down so we could understand exactly what a bill would do if passed and put into law, along with compiling testimony for Trish during committee meetings.
Despite the avalanche of preemption, reproductive health restrictions, gender bias, pro gun and voter suppression bills, the League and its members were a clear and powerful voice for free and fair elections, human dignity, voter rights, safer schools, and affordable and accessible health care.
The Capitol Alliance Group team was proud, once again, to assist the League in advocating for issues that protect all Floridians and look forward to assisting during the 2022 legislative session.
Top Priority Opposition — Senate Bill 90 – Election Administration
After days of contentious debate and last-minute amendments bouncing between chambers, the Republican-controlled state House and Senate came to an agreement and party-line votes approved Senate Bill 90 on the eve of Florida’s final day of the legislative session.
The bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed into law, creates restrictions such as adding new ID requirements for voting by mail, limits who can return a completed mail-in ballot, prohibits the use of nonprofit and private funds to conduct elections, expands partisan observation power during ballot tabulation, and creates additional restrictions for drop box use.
The bill is part of a Republican-led effort nationwide to restrict voting access at the state level in the wake of record turnout in last November’s elections. A tally by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that 361 bills with provisions that restrict voting had been introduced in 47 states as of March 24. In the last month, the effort to restrict voting has intensified as state legislatures begin to head into the final months of their respective sessions.
The biggest changes in the bill involve limits and restrictions on ballot drop boxes, used by around 1.5 million Florida voters in the 2020 election. The legislation cuts access to drop boxes by limiting their use to early voting hours unless they are located at election supervisors’ offices. All drop boxes must always be staffed in person by election supervisors’ office workers if they are in use. The bill also requires supervisors to set and publish drop box locations 30 days before the election. Those locations cannot be moved for any purpose. The bill says election supervisors can be subject to a $25,000 penalty if they do not adhere to the new drop box rules.
The League of Women Voters of Florida is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit brought forth alongside Black Voters Matter Fund, Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, and several individual Florida voters to challenging Senate Bill 90. The lawsuit’s filing came minutes after the measure was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis.
Top Priority Opposition — House Bill 1 – Combating Public Disorder
After a session of trying to fight off a bill that would hinder our right to peacefully protest and force harder punishments for people who are in violation to this new law, the Florida Legislature passed HB 1, which was a priority for the Governor.
The House passed HB 1 through all its committee stops and on the Floor. However, the Senate never heard the companion bill throughout committee weeks. It was not until President Simpson pulled SB 484 and referred it to the Senate Appropriation committee, where it was heard and passed after hours of debate by senators and testimony from the public. Eventually it was passed by committee and on the Senate floor.
The governor held a press conference on the 19th of April to sign the bill into law.
Here is what the final legislation entails:
— Allows prosecutors and local officials to appeal to the state if a municipality tries to cut its police budget amid calls to cut or defund the police.
— It makes battery on a law enforcement officer “in furtherance of a riot or an aggravated riot” punishable by at least six months in prison. “Willfully and maliciously” pulling down a memorial or historic property would be a second-degree felony, a penalty that critics said would protect Confederate monuments.
— The bill also makes it a third-degree felony to participate in a riot, which is defined as three or more people acting in common to “assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct” that results in injury, property damage or “imminent danger” of injury or property damage.
— The measure also creates a defense in civil lawsuits if the plaintiff’s injuries were caused while participating in a riot or unlawful assembly. Critics said that would protect counter protesters from liability if they drove through a demonstration and killed a person.
Other Legislation Relating to the LWVFL’s 2021 Priorities (or Major Policy Areas in which the League has a Focus)
This list of bills and narratives do not cover the full breath of the League’s work this session but are a well rounded view of various policy areas were the League’s voice was substantially present during this session.
Senate Bill 48/House Bill 7045 – Educational Scholarship Programs (Issue: Education)
A bill touted as the nation’s largest expansion of school voucher programs is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis after both chambers agreed to make more students eligible for state scholarships to pay for private schools or other private educational services. The League fought this bill all session long.
The Florida House’s version of the voucher school legislation passed was the final version passed. Supporters in both chambers said it would give more Florida parents educational options outside public schools by making more children — including those living in families of four earning nearly $100,000 — eligible for vouchers, which were initially created to help children living in on or below the poverty line.
Critics, including the League, let it be known that the legislation as a vehicle for sending more taxpayer money to unregulated private schools that, unlike public schools, do not have to hire college-educated teachers, make public student test scores or graduation rates or face consequences if their students do not make academic gains.
Final Vote: Senate 25-14; House 79-36
House Bill 61 – Percentage of Elector Votes Required to Approve Constitutional Amendment or Revision (Issue: Voting Rights + Election Reform)
House Bill 61 proposed an amendment to State Constitution to increase percentage of elector votes required to approve amendment to or revision of State Constitution from 60 percent to 66 & 2/3 percent, except that repeal of amendment or revision need only be approved by same percentage of elector votes as was required at time of passage of such amendment or revision.
After passing each committee stops, HB 61 died after being placed on 2nd reading and never being taken up. The Senate companion SB 1238, died in the rules committee.
The bill not passing is a major win for the League and for the power of Florida’s electorate.
Senate Bill 86 – Student Financial Aid (Issue: Education)
Senate Bill 86 created a lot of backlash when heard in committee during committee weeks. A bill that originally would have gutted bright futures and create a list of majors that would receive less financial aid if the were deemed less successful to obtain a job, was debated for hours and over 70 college students from across the state came and testified on the matter before Senator Baxley attempted to make the bill better. The final version that passed the Senator floor was watered down. It no longer took money away from students, and instead created an online portal for students to use to see which degrees would be more likely to have a job upon graduation.
Ultimately the bill died in messages, as the House never took up SB 86, a win for the League.
House Bill 241 – Parents’ Bill of Rights (Issue: Education + Reproductive Health & Justice)
House Bill 241 establishes the “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” The bill provides that the state, its political subdivisions, any other governmental entity, or other institution may not infringe upon the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of a minor child. If those entities infringe upon a parent’s fundamental right, they must demonstrate that the action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest, and the action must be narrowly tailored and not otherwise served by less restrictive means.
The bill enumerates a list of rights that a parent possesses to direct the education of his or her child and be informed about the child’s educational programs. The bill also requires a school district to promote parental involvement in the public school system by providing access to the child’s studies and instructional materials while recognizing a parent’s right to withdraw the child from objectionable portions of the school’s curriculum.
The bill further requires a parent’s permission before a health care practitioner may provide services, prescribe medicine to the child, or perform a medical procedure, unless otherwise provided by law. The bill provides a misdemeanor penalty for a health care practitioner or similar person who violates the health care provisions and subjects these persons to disciplinary actions.
During the legislative committee process the League expressed that this bill would prevent young people from receiving the services they need, including wellness exams and reproductive health care. This would make our young people less healthy and less safe. The bill endorses parental actions that are clearly not good public health policy and are not in the interest of young people who need access to information about safe reproductive health practices including accurate information about HIV and STIs.
If approved by the Governor, HB 241’s provisions take effect July 1, 2021.
Final Vote: Senate 24-15; House 78-37
House Bill 259 – Safety of Religious Institutions (Issue: Gun Safety + Education)
House Bill 259 addresses the possession of a concealed weapon or firearm for defensive or other lawful purposes on property used by a religious institution that is co-located with a school. Under existing law, a person who has a concealed weapon or firearm license may legally carry a firearm inside a church, synagogue, or other religious institution. However, the person is generally prohibited from carrying a firearm on property that is in an area where firearms are prohibited, such as a school. Under the bill, a person who has a concealed weapon or firearm license may carry a concealed weapon or firearm on the property of a religious institution regardless of whether the property is also used as a school.
The bill further states that it “does not limit the private property rights of a church, synagogue, or other religious institution to exercise control over property that the church, synagogue, or other religious institution owns, rents, leases, borrows, or lawfully uses.” Accordingly, religious institutions and owners of property borrowed or used by a religious institution may continue to regulate and prohibit firearms on their own property.
If approved by the Governor, HB 259’s provisions take effect upon becoming law. Final Vote: Senate 24-16; House 76-37
The League made it clear in the legislative committee process that the safety of religious institutions is a valid concern given the shootings in Charleston
and Pittsburgh. But, most Florida churches and houses of worship already permit firearms. Expanding concealed carry to churches with schools on property, or where churches rent space from schools is extremely concerning. It is also reckless. The League subscribes to the evidence that more guns do not keep people safer, they do the opposite. The individuals who may carry concealed
weapons need only the training required to obtain a concealed weapons permit, which is minimal.
Senate Bill 354 – Restitution (Issue: Election Reform/Restoration of Rights)
Senate Bill 354 amends criminal law and juvenile delinquency law to provide that restitution owed to a victim must be determined on a fair market value basis unless the state, victim, or defendant shows that using another basis, including, but not limited to, replacement cost, purchase price less depreciation, or actual cost of repair, is equitable and better furthers the purposes of restitution. The bill specifies that the primary purpose of restitution is to compensate the victim, and that restitution also serves the rehabilitative and deterrent goals of the criminal and juvenile justice systems. The court may consider hearsay evidence for the purpose of determining restitution, provided that the hearsay evidence has a minimal indicium of reliability.
If approved by the Governor, these provisions take effect July 1, 2021.
Final Vote: Senate 40-0; House 114-1
The League met with the bill sponsor and other Senators to ensure original pieces of this legislation that could of had negative impacts were modified.
House Bill 839 – Express Preemption of Fuel Retailers and Related Transportation Infrastructure (Issue: Home Rule + Natural Resources + Clean Energy)
House Bill 839 expressly preempts a municipality, county, special district, or political subdivision from adopting a law, an ordinance, a regulation, a policy, or a resolution that:
Prohibits the siting, development, or redevelopment of a fuel retailer or its necessary related transportation infrastructure.
Results in a de facto prohibition on a fuel retailer or its necessary related transportation infrastructure.
Requires a fuel retailer to install or invest in a particular kind of fuel infrastructure.
The bill does not preempt any such action which is consistent with zoning, land use, and other allowable uses and general law if it does not result in a de facto prohibition of fuel retailers or related transportation infrastructure.
Definitions for the terms “fuel retailer,” and “related transportation energy infrastructure” are provided for in the bill.
If approved by the Governor, these provisions take effect upon becoming law.
Final Vote: Senate 26-12; House 79-38
The League has written to Governor DeSantis and asked for a veto of this measure.
Senate Bill 1890 – Campaign Financing (Issue: Election Reform)
Senate Bill 1890 adds political committees sponsoring or in opposition to constitutional amendments proposed by initiative to the list of entities subject to a $3,000 contribution limit from a person or political committee. The contribution limit will no longer apply to such a political committee once the Secretary of State has issued a certificate of ballot position and a designating number for the proposed constitutional amendment.
The bill preempts local governments from enacting or adopting:
Contribution limits that differ from existing limits specified in statute.
Any limitation or restriction involving contributions to a political committee or an electioneering communications organization; or Any limitation or restriction on expenditures for an electioneering communication or an independent expenditure.
The bill also revises the authorized methods for disposing of surplus campaign funds to:
Prohibit a candidate from donating such funds to a charitable organization by which he or she is employed; and
Eliminate restrictions on which candidates may donate to which government funds to allow all candidates for state and local office to deposit surplus funds in the general revenue fund of a political subdivision, the state General Revenue Fund, or the Election Campaign Financing Trust Fund.
Final Vote: Senate 23-17; House 75-40
The Governor signed this measure on May 7th, our organizational partner ACLU of Florida has filed a lawsuit against it.
House Bill 7051 – Law Enforcement and Correctional Officer Practices (Issue: Juvenile Justice)
Despite quick turnaround on the legislation, which wasn’t submitted until last week, House Bill 7051 is the product of months of negotiations between House leadership, the Florida Legislative Black Caucus and stakeholders like law enforcement.
The police reform bill would call for basic training on proportional use of force, including de-escalation techniques and intervening in another officer’s excessive use of force and chokeholds. Chokeholds, which became central to national conversations around the use of force after Floyd’s death, could only be used when an “officer perceives an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or another person,” the bill outlines.
Final Vote: Senate 40-; House 113-0
The legislation also creates the “Kaia Rolle Act,” which would prevent children younger than 7 from being arrested or charged with crimes that aren’t forcible felonies. Adding this piece to the larger package was crucial for the League has it has been a top line priority for our Juvenile Justice Action Team.
Senate Bill 1028 – Education (Issue: Education + Reproductive Health & Justice)
Senate Bill 1028 was seemingly a non-threatening bill but when HB 1475, a bill which sought to ban transgender athletes from participating in sex-segregated athletics passed the Florida House and died in the Senate, a last minute amendment was added at the last moment to SB 1028. This happened with substantial outcry from organizations and legislators during a controversial late-night session. SB 1028, while doing a slue of things, bans transgender girls from participating in school sports in Florida.
Final Vote: Senate 23-16; House 79-37
Senate Bill 166 & Senate Bill 274 – Juvenile Diversion Program Expunction (Issue: Juvenile Justice)
Senate Bill 166 and 274 comprises an expungement bill package for juvenile felony and misdemeanor offenses, including beyond a first offense. Juveniles can now go through post-arrest, nonjudicial diversion programs and be free from any criminal background upon completion of these programs.
Final Vote: Senate 39-0; House 117-0
This bill package passing was a win for the League’s Juvenile Justice Action Team. We waived publicly in support of the bills multiple times and worked with key legislators to ensure it passed.
Senate Bill 1884 – Preemption of Firearms and Ammunition Regulation (Issue: Gun Safety + Home Rule)
Senate Bill 1884 preempts the whole field of regulation of firearms and ammunition, including the purchase, sale, transfer, taxation, manufacture, ownership, possession, storage, and transportation thereof, to the state. Any person or organization whose membership is adversely affected by any ordinance, regulation, measure, directive, rule, enactment, order, or policy promulgated in violation of s. 790.33 F.S., may file suit against the governmental entity for a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. If a court determines the plaintiff is the prevailing party, the plaintiff may recover actual damages of up to $100,000 in addition to any attorney fees. The bill also provides a mechanism for a plaintiff to recover damages and attorney fees when a government entity changes its regulation while the regulation is being challenged under s. 790.33, F.S. Specifically, when a government entity voluntarily changes the regulation that was challenged pursuant to a complaint, the plaintiff challenging that regulation is considered the prevailing party and may recover actual damages and attorney fees.
Final Vote: Senate 24-16; House 78-39 As of May 9th Governor DeSantis has signed SB 1884 into law.
House Bill 919 -Preemption Over Restriction of Utility Services (Issue: Clean Energy + Home Rule)
If signed into law House Bill 919 would strip away cities’ and counties’ authority to take any action that would prohibit or restrict the type of fuel used, transported or sold by electricity and gas providers. These bills will remove community voices from all decisions about our energy and pull the plug on local progress on clean energy.
The League knows Floridians have worked for years to push their cities to achieve 100 percent clean energy. This legislation will nullify their work and, if passed, communities will be unable to adopt building codes better suited for our emerging clean-energy economy. Broad, vague preemptions such as this are inherently dangerous, especially when dealing with intimately related issues to public health and safety, such as energy. The overly broad language could overturn many local regulations, policies and safeguards meant to preserve safety and health. This blanket rollback will cause confusion and almost certainly spark litigation.
Final Vote: Senate 27-13; House 81-34
The League has written to Governor DeSantis and asked for a veto of this measure.