Florida Legislature sets sights on education, health care
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida lawmakers signaled that they would likely tackle education spending and health care costs but might seek to avoid a battle over forcing employers to verify the immigration status of workers, as the 2020 legislative session began Tuesday.
House Speaker Jose Oliva was unsparing in his criticism of what he called the “healthcare industrial complex,” including drug companies, hospitals and medical device companies that he said were “the great robber-barons of our time.”
Oliva sought to build on some of health care initiatives of last year’s legislative session, including passage of a first-in-the-nation drug importation bill.
“We did not choose healthcare as our priority,” he said. “No, it chose us. It chose us through the sheer audacity of the defenders of the status quo.”
With a presidential election looming this fall, fierce partisan divides could influence the work of lawmakers.
But an air of collegiality prevailed Tuesday, as bouquets festooned the chambers and the Capitol halls and rotundas pulsed with activity. Opening day was also important for lobbyists and the activists who seek to influence lawmakers and the legislation that will be crafted over the 60 days the Legislature has to complete its business before adjourning.
While DeSantis enjoys strong relationships with lawmakers — particularly his fellow Republicans who run both chambers of the statehouse — he may not necessarily get everything he wants during his second year as the state’s chief executive.
His $91.4 billion budget calls for major spending on the environment and education — including a nearly $1 billion outlay for teacher raises and bonuses. Some fiscally conservative lawmakers said they would give the spending intense scrutiny.
On the eve of the Legislature’s opening day, thousands of educators and their allies descended on the Capitol to draw attention to the governor’s plan, calling it flawed because of potential pay inequities and because veteran educators and non-teaching school employees would be left out.
Some key Republicans have also cast doubt on the governor’s plan to require employers to use a federally operated electronic database known as E-Verify to check the immigration status of workers.
E-Verify has been opposed by agriculture, construction, tourism interests and other industries that rely on immigrant labor.
Hundreds of bills await, encompassing education spending, health care, the environment and public safety — as well as approving the billions of dollars required to keep the country’s third-most populous state operating day to day.
Legislative Democrats are pushing for stronger gun control measures, but face long odds to win over their Republican colleagues.
Addressing a joint session of the state House and Senate during his State of the State address, DeSantis urged cooperation — particularly when it comes to approving his agenda on the environment and education.
“This is Florida’s season of opportunity,” DeSantis told lawmakers. “We have the chance to build on a strong foundation, the chance to face the challenges before us and the chance to leave a legacy of success that will benefit our people now and in the future.”
Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Republican who’s next in line to be House speaker, commended DeSantis for the sweep of his speech -- covering priorities, he said, that were crucial to Florida’s future.
“The members of the House want to help the governor because we believe in the same thing,” Sprowls said.
However, Sprowls declined to discuss the merits of specific legislation proposed by the governor, saying that task will be undertaken in the days and weeks to come. And while the governor’s agenda appeared “bright,” he said, “nothing is ever a slam dunk.”
In his opening remarks, Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican, reminded lawmakers of their weighty responsibility.
“As we go into this session let us continue to show our constituents that we can exchange and debate ideas while maintaining civility and decorum,” he told the chamber. “That we can problem solve together. That we can put aside personalities and politics for good policy. And, that we are not a microcosm of Washington, D.C., but instead will continue to be an example for Washington, D.C.”