Florida lawmakers face big issues as the 2022 legislative session gets underway
Florida lawmakers are preparing to kick off their annual lawmaking session which begins on Jan. 11. The agenda comes amid both an election and redistricting year which will see Republicans try to boost their numbers and win all statewide contests while Democrats try to hold their ground. Casting a shadow over everything is the ongoing fallout from the Coronavirus, as Florida and the nation enter the third year of the pandemic.
Florida lawmakers jump into the once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries for state legislative and congressional seats to accommodate population changes recorded by the census. The House and Senate will negotiate on the final map for Florida’s 28 congressional districts. An additional district is being drawn in Central Florida due to population growth. Each chamber will draw its own maps for its respective state legislative districts.
Abortion: Pro-life and pro-choice advocates are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court as they await a ruling on a Mississippi abortion law that bans the procedures after 15 weeks. If Mississippi’s law stands, it could set a new course for states, like Florida, which have tried to pass more restrictions on abortions. The high court has also yet to rule on a controversial Texas law that allows private citizens to sue anyone who helps a person obtain an abortion; the court has allowed that law to stay in place as it weighs the case—and already, a similar proposal has been filed in Florida, though at least one powerful state Senator has said publicly they’re not interested in such a law in Florida. Republicans appear ready to pass additional abortion restrictions in the Sunshine State.
Shortages (doctors and nurses): Florida could be short nearly 18,000 doctors by 2035 according to a study released by the Safety Net Hospital Alliance and the Florida Hospital Association. The shortage could leave about 25% of Florida’s population without a doctor. The two groups are asking the legislature to fund $38 million for 3,000-6,000 new training slots in an effort to recruit and retain doctors in Florida. In addition to a looming physician shortage, the report also notes the state could be about 59,000 nurses short in 2035. The shortfalls are being caused by a combination of factors, mostly retirements and people leaving the state.
Partisan School Board Races: School Board races are again being targeted for changes following a contentious year that saw fights over mask mandates, school closures, and how history and civics are taught. Now an effort is underway to make school board races partisan. A primary backer of the plan is state GOP Chairman and Senator Joe Gruters, who says politics is already at play at the local school level, so why not be transparent about it? On the other side are several voter advocacy groups and the state’s parent-teacher organization who say partisan school board races will only worsen the situation and that politics has no place in schools.
Standardized Testing: Governor Ron DeSantis and State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran say they are done with standardized testing and appear ready to toss out the state exams in favor of something else. That is music to the ears of groups like the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher's union, which has been concerned for years about what it views as an over-reliance on state exams that determine everything from school and district grades to funding, and even teacher retention, promotion and pay. DeSantis wants to replace those exams with periodic reviews of student skills, known as progress monitoring. There are still questions about what a new system will look like.
Critical Race Theory & DEI: Florida’s Republican leaders are pushing legislation that would allow parents to sue school districts that teach critical race theory—CRT is an idea that examines how racism has impacted public policy. Some conservatives see it as divisive following recent social justice movements. There are also bills that would curb local governments and publicly funded education institutions from mandating diversity, equity, and inclusion training for their employees.
University academic freedom: What should have been a banner year for the University of Florida after being named to U.S. News and World Report’s Top 5 universities, has turned into a nightmare for the school amid a wave of negative headlines. The school’s board chairman is accused of fast-tracking the hire of the state’s new attorney general into a tenured position. Three tenured professors are suing the school after it initially refused to allow them to testify as expert witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit against the state; and another UF professor accused the school of censoring and rejecting a program that had “critical” and “Race” in the title. For fear of angering the state’s Republican leaders. Other schools are noting problems with certain members of their boards of trustees—who the schools claim are meddling in affairs they shouldn’t--even down to low-level hires.
Teacher Shortages and Pay: Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to just more than $230 million in federal stimulus money to award more bonuses to teachers and principals. DeSantis has moved to increase the starting pay of teachers in recent years and is asking the legislature for another $600 million to get starting pay average to $47,500. Many school districts are still short of that goal. The governor also wants to get per-pupil spending to $8,000. Right now, it’s about $200 short of that threshold. Teacher's groups have derided the pay increases as a half-gesture, noting they don’t apply to existing teachers. The pandemic has exacerbated an already-existing shortage of educators.
Preemption: Florida lawmakers have already teed up a plan that would let private businesses sue local governments if a local decision results in a revenue or profit loss of more than 15%. It’s the latest in a now decade-long effort by Republicans to claw back power from cities and counties and consolidate it at the legislative level. Defenders of pre-emption bills say they make sense and give Floridians one standard set of rules to follow. Critics argue such measures take away decision-making authority at the level of government where it matters most and stop residents from making critical decisions about their own communities.
Elections: Florida’s presidential election went off largely problem-free, something Gov. Ron DeSantis initially touted. Former President Donald Trump won the state but lost his re-election bid, leading to calls from some conservative groups for audits, amid unfounded claims the election was rigged. DeSantis has so far resisted calls for an audit. He is asking the legislature to create and fund an election fraud and security department that would be housed in the Department of State. That office would investigate and prosecute election crimes.
Ballot drop box limits: Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a new law that made sweeping changes to the state’s election rules. Among the changes—limits on how, where, and when voters can use ballot drop boxes. Now, Chief federal district judge Mark Walker is slated to begin a trial over the law on Jan. 31ST. The ongoing legal fight comes as Florida begins to gear up for mid-term elections, with key races such as the governor and cabinet positions, slated for the November ballot.
Guns: An effort to allow open carry in Florida is again on the table and Gov. Ron DeSantis has signaled he could sign off on it should it clear the legislature. The proposal is by Republican Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who has also filed a bill to allow firearms in legislative hearing rooms. The controversial Republican, who is also running for Congress, is also carrying bills that would allow guns on college campuses. That's something many Second Amendment backers have long sought and an issue that’s been repeatedly blocked by the lobbying efforts of former FSU President John Thrasher, who retired last year. Another Sabatini bill would roll back a law passed after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that raised the age of gun ownership for most guns to 21. That law is presently part of a lawsuit between the National Rifle Association and the state.
Criminal Justice Reform: Republican Sen. Keith Perry has refiled a proposal to expand the use of juvenile record expungements. Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the measure last year over concerns the measure would lead to the sealing of serious crimes. This year, Perry’s bill removes forcible felonies from the list of crimes that can be expunged. Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart has refiled several criminal justice proposals—including an effort to reform the state’s parole system and provide more oversight to juvenile justice and correction department facilities. Meanwhile, a plan to retroactively reduce sentences for certain crimes cleared its first Senate committee in November. The proposal by Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson would create a plan for notifying eligible inmates that they could have their sentences reduced, but the inmates would have to request a resentencing hearing.
Water Quality: Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking for nearly $1 billion to restore Florida’s Everglades system and improve the quality of the state’s water bodies. The bulk of that money would go toward ongoing efforts to restore the Everglades. Some $195 million would be targeted for water quality improvement projects across the state, another $35 million would be spent on more general water quality improvement efforts and help mitigate the effects of toxic algae blooms and red tide clean up, both of which have plagued the state in recent years.
Manatees: More than 1,000 of Florida’s gentle, aquatic mammals have died this year mostly because of starvation, making 2022 the deadliest year on record for sea cows. Most of those deaths have been recorded in the Indian River Lagoon, where the Washington Post reports, “96 percent of 77,000 acres of seagrass have disappeared.” The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation is asking for nearly $4 million to aid the manatees; Florida Agriculture Nikki Fried has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-classify the species as “endangered,” and there’s an effort in Congress to fast-track that listing. Federal and state wildlife officials have launched a manatee feeding program.
Visit Florida: The state’s public-private tourism and marketing arm is seeking more certainty, a few years after it barely survived a legislative effort to absolve it. Visit Florida could see an extension in its operating life t0 2028 or 2031 under two legislative proposals that have been filed. Tourism is the state’s largest industry, and it took a pandemic hit in early 2020 before recovering much of the lost ground within the past year. Still, international tourism—which brings more money into Florida—continues to lag.