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Budget Leads Major Issues In Florida Legislature's Last Week

Florida Capitol
Michael Rivera
Florida Capitol

The Florida Legislature careens into its final scheduled week with a host of major issues still to be settled, including a roughly $90 billion state budget that is the only bill lawmakers are required to pass.

House Speaker Jose Oliva said an agreement on the budget should be reached by Tuesday, giving legislators the required 72-hour "cooling off" period to read and digest it before a final vote. Friday is the scheduled end of the 60-day legislative session.

"We're on time. We like the position we're in now," said Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican.

As in any other year, most bills filed by lawmakers will wither away. But there are several high-profile issues that have passed either the House or Senate and must be reconciled before they can be sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis to become law.

One of those is the "sanctuary cities" bill that would require local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal authorities on detaining undocumented immigrants and ban local governments from enacting policies that would protect them. The House has passed its version but compromise with the Senate remains elusive.

Other big-ticket items yet to be finalized or discarded include: creating a new private school voucher program, authorizing a Canadian prescription drug importation program, permitting more classroom teachers to carry weapons, implementing a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights for most ex-felons, making texting while driving a primary traffic offense, beginning to build three major toll highways in rural areas, allowing hemp to become a crop and requiring parental consent for a minor girl to get an abortion.

In other words, welcome to the final week of the Legislature.

The one major accomplishment so far is a measure that allows smokable forms of medical marijuana, which DeSantis signed into law in March. That aligned state law with a constitutional amendment passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2016 and overturned a law signed in 2017 by then-Gov. Rick Scott that prohibited smoking medical weed.

Oliva said sometimes it takes legislators a while to come around on major issues. The texting and driving ban bill, for example, seems simple given the plague of distracted driving crashes, but many African American lawmakers worry it could be used by law enforcement officers to disproportionately stop drivers of color.

"That's another one that has taken a long time to kind of mature because of the challenge of who will be pulled over and giving authorities another reason to pull people over," the speaker said.

One potential last-minute issue is whether Florida will renew its revenue-sharing compact with the Seminole Tribe, which has paid the state $350 million a year in return for exclusive rights to certain forms of gambling. The current compact expires May 31 and lawmakers aren't counting on the money this year, but Senate President Bill Galvano said it's possible a new agreement will be reached between DeSantis and the tribe after meetings Friday.

"At the end of the day, it is up to him to make the agreement with the Seminole Tribe but we have a role of ratification," said Galvano, a Bradenton Republican. "These things take time. Any movement is positive."

The budget talks, as usual, focus on big multibillion-dollar things like public education, health care, the environment and criminal justice — but they also include a myriad of smaller items, such as whether to allow the Visit Florida tourism office to expire in October under current law. The Senate has voted to reauthorize it, but lawmakers so far have agreed only to provide $19 million for the upcoming year, enough to allow it to close up shop.

DeSantis sought full funding of $76 million. The Senate initially suggested $50 million, while the House was adamant about only the minimal amount. Oliva, however, seems resigned to keeping the office alive another year, mainly because the governor wants it.

"The governor's office has expressed a desire to have it continue to go forward so that he would have the opportunity to make an assessment of his own of how unnecessary it is," the speaker said. "I don't know about fully funding it."

Dozens of other items will be caught up in the final week's budget scramble, and DeSantis has line-item veto authority once it is passed. One thing he might want to keep is a nearly $4 million appropriation for a new state airplane to replace the hand-me-down one the governor currently uses.

The new budget will take effect July 1.

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