What the 2019 Florida Legislature got right and wrong | Editorial
By SUN SENTINEL EDITORIAL BOARD
| SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL |
MAY 10, 2019 | 6:21 PM
The hanky drop that marks the end of the Florida Legislature’s annual 60-day session feels nothing like the session’s final days, when lawmakers are pushed to approve major policy changes in bulky bills that fly by in a flash.
Some years, frustrated by what just happened, legislative leaders refuse to participate in the hanky drop, a throwback signal for both chambers to gavel the session closed.
This year, though, they were all smiles, having passed a record $91 billion state budget along with sweeping changes for hospitals, highways and education.
All told, the Republican-led chambers passed 195 bills, some good, some bad.
Here’s our take on the winners and losers.
Those who support arming teachers: A year after the mass shooting in Parkland, the Legislature voted to let teachers carry loaded guns, subject to training. This misguided and dangerous legislation makes Florida the first state to put firearms in classrooms. Most urban school districts — including Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade — won’t participate in the so-called guardian program. Given everything expected of teachers, it’s hard to see how 144 hours of training will make and keep them proficient at shooting armed lunatics. That said, if volunteer teachers are now expected to be first responders, lawmakers should treat their union the same as those representing police and firefighters, given the dangerous nature of their work.
Big Tobacco: A proposal to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21 faltered in the House, proving once again that public health is no match for tobacco campaign money.
Businesses that rent: After years of debate, lawmakers finally approved a fractional cut in the tax rate businesses pay on rents, from 5.7 percent to 5.5 percent. Florida remains the only state in the country that taxes the rent businesses pay. The tax is nonsensical, but the reduction is classic Tallahassee incrementalism, and too small to really make a difference in merchants’ pocketbooks.
For-profit education companies: Public schools will get a $242 increase in per-pupil spending next year, up from last year’s 47-cent increase. But the gain was overshadowed by the decision to let public dollars flow to private and religious schools via vouchers, a move that will undermine public schools and could be unconstitutional. In addition, any future funds raised by local referendum must be shared with charter schools. So when Broward and Palm Beach Counties ask voters to re-up sales or property taxes for teacher salaries in three years, for-profit charter schools will get a cut.
Environmentalists: Encouraged by Gov. Ron DeSantis, lawmakers agreed to spend more than $680 million to address water quality, springs protection and Everglades restoration, including $25 million to battle blue-green algae and red tide — positive steps that are long overdue.
Medical marijuana patients: Again, because of DeSantis’ leadership, patients who receive medical marijuana from their doctors can now legally smoke the substance.
Prescription drug patients: If the feds agree, a new law will allow Florida to purchase cheaper prescription drugs from Canada for state programs, like Medicaid and prison health care – another DeSantis priority. To his credit, President Trump has asked his health secretary to help make it happen. The measure overcame a hysterical advertising blitz from the pharmaceutical industry, which ran TV ads warning dangerous drugs from Canada could kill people.
Firefighters: A new law, already signed by DeSantis, says that if firefighters in good health get one of 21 cancers, it’s presumed they got it because of their job and so are entitled to expanded benefits. House Speaker Jose Oliva had resisted the push, in part because of the cost to local governments. But armed with studies showing an increased risk of cancer among firefighters, his members rightly insisted.
Motorists: Texting while driving could get more expensive, now that the Legislature has made it a primary offense. That means police can stop drivers for texting without having another reason for a stop, such as a broken taillight. Motorists also must drive hands-free in work and school zones. It’s about time.
School board members: Republican lawmakers once again toyed with the idea of imposing term limits on elected county school board members, subject to approval of voters, but they fell short. Good riddance to this terrible idea. In Tallahassee, term limits have created a revolving door of politicians always looking for their next gig, not for what’s best.
Wealthy land owners: A massive transportation bill spearheaded by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, requires construction of three toll roads over the next decade in central and north Florida. Despite Florida’s massive traffic problems, there’s scant evidence these new highways will do anything other than make major landholders extremely wealthy. DeSantis should back up his pro-environment talk by vetoing this bill.
Visit Florida: Again threatened with extinction by the House, the state’s tourism-promotion arm survived another year, but with a downsized budget of $50 million, not the $76 million it sought. Visit Florida has made some major blunders in recent years, including trying to keep its contracts — like the million-dollar deal given rapper Pitbull — secret. But tourism is a pillar of Florida’s economy, advertising works and Visit Florida shouldn’t be tortured like this, session after session.
Hospitals: In one of the worst bills of the session, lawmakers repealed most of the certificate of need law that aimed to hold down medical costs by limiting potentially wasteful competition from new hospitals, surgical centers and other expensive facilities. Those who would build them no longer will need to prove they’re necessary. Who’ll pay for all the new duplication in services? You will. (We’ll have more to say on this issue soon.)
Hurricane victims: Despite all their self-congratulatory talk, legislators short-changed Panhandle residents and business owners wracked by Hurricane Michael seven months ago. The state’s decision to spend $220 million is appallingly weak, and only a fraction of what one lawmaker sought for the Panama City region alone.
Immigrants: The legislature passed a ban on so-called “sanctuary cities,” though the federal government says Florida has no so-called sanctuary cities. The bill requires local police to cooperate with federal immigration authorities when undocumented immigrants are taken into custody, even if they didn’t commit a crime. Problem is, when immigration officials ask jail officials to detain people suspected of being here illegally, they often get it wrong. In the last two years, Miami-Dade jail officials received 420 federal detainer requests on American citizens, the ACLU reports. And in Monroe County last year, an American was jailed for three weeks because immigration officials thought he was from Jamaica. To be safe, you better start carrying your papers.
Citizens, part one: Florida is one of the costliest states for citizens to pursue ballot initiatives on issues that lawmakers refuse to address — like medical marijuana, smaller classroom sizes or a ban on assault-style weapons. And passage requires a super-majority of 60 percent of voters. Now, in one of their most cynical acts, lawmakers have imposed more hurdles on groups that want to pass constitutional amendments. No longer can signature gatherers be paid for the signatures they collect, for example. Given that nearly 800,000 voter signatures are needed to reach the ballot, paying by signature is the only practical way to proceed. This low-down-and-dirty attack on citizen petition drives deserves to be vetoed. If DeSantis doesn’t, he’ll be remembered — and judged — for siding with the powerful, against the people.
Citizens, part two: If you sue to enforce a local comprehensive growth plan, get ready to whip out your wallet if you lose. A last last-minute amendment makes the loser responsible for all legal fees, including those of the developer. Talk about a chilling effect on speaking up against growth. It’s yet more evidence of who the Legislature’s true constituents are. This deserves Gov. DeSantis’ veto pen.
Former felons: The restoration of voting rights under Amendment 4 received far more votes than any candidate on the 2018 ballot. But lawmakers so narrowly interpreted what voters meant that many felons, who cannot afford to pay all their fines and fees, will continue to be denied the right to vote. This cruelly places a price tag on democracy that was not what voters intended. “Public Enemy Number One — Al Capone — would be able to vote, but not a guy who owes 50 bucks,” said Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami. “I don’t think that’s what the voters meant.” He’s right. We didn’t.
Florida Lottery: In another dubious first for Florida, the legislature wants warning labels placed on tickets and promotional materials for the 31-year-old state lottery. Lottery officials predict the label will hurt ticket sales and mean less money for education. If lawmakers are so troubled by state-sanctioned gambling, they should ask Floridians to abolish the lottery. Otherwise, like former Gov. Rick Scott did two years ago, Gov. DeSantis should veto this bill.
Gambling: The clock expired before lawmakers could negotiate an agreement that might have brought legal sports betting to Florida. The inaction keeps gambling interests on edge — and their campaign contributions flowing.
Nonviolent offenders: The Senate wanted to cut minimum sentences of thousands of nonviolent prison inmates from 85 percent to 65 percent of time served. But a more-conservative House refused, even though state economists said it would empty enough prison beds to save nearly $900 million over the next five years. The 85 percent rule dates to the 1990s, when early releases of inmates was blamed for violent crime. Mark this as a missed opportunity for serious criminal justice reform.
State workers: Another year goes by without an across-the-board pay raise for Florida state workers, who are among the lowest-paid in the country. Florida legislators ignore and marginalize the people who are the backbone of state government, including those who cleaned up the Rotunda after the hanky drop.
The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Sergio Bustos, Steve Bousquet and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email firstname.lastname@example.org