FERNANDINA BEACH WEATHER

The 2021 Florida Legislative Session kicked off yesterday

March 2, 2021

The article below by Peter Schorsch was published earlier today on FloridaPolitics.com.

Three top priorities this Session: COVID, COVID and COVID

How could it be any other way?
With apologies to the late, great Tim Russert … The top three issues facing the 2021 Florida Legislature are COVID, COVID, COVID.

It’s no surprise that just about everything that will happen during the 60-day Session will be directly or indirectly related to the pandemic or influenced by the countless ways it has changed life in our state.

From health care policy to the budget, from education policy to the environment, the session will seem like all COVID-19, all the time. Even where legislation doesn’t directly link to COVID-19 — say, school choice — lawmakers will be factoring in what it will cost in a pandemic-battered economy or how it will help kids whose schooling was turned upside down.

How could it be any other way?

The biggest COVID-19 impact on the Legislature will, of course, be the budget. Florida’s economy took a body blow from which it is still struggling to recover. Meeting the state’s ever-growing needs is challenging in the best of times, but revenues are down, and needs are up.

When it comes to generating revenue to fill budget shortfalls, legislators have a few ideas up their sleeve, in a diverse list that includes:

— Requiring all out-of-state retailers to collect and remit sales taxes on things Floridians buy online;

— Authorizing online sports gambling; and

— Jump-starting Florida’s airports, which are the gateway to tourism — pre-COVID-19, nearly half of all visitors arrived here by air — and suffered major losses when passenger traffic dipped significantly last year.

But realistically, generating new revenue can only carry the load so far. The real challenge will be determining how to divvy up what’s there to do the most good for a public with more needs than ever.

Just consider the Medicaid budget, which barely meets the basic health care needs of Florida’s poorest citizens and faces a $1.3 billion gap. The state is notoriously chintzy in reimbursing hospitals and health care providers for taking care of low-income patients, and any further cuts would threaten access to care for the state’s poorest residents. In the past, lawmakers often chose winners and losers in which hospitals would get adequate Medicaid funding. Still, this year it’s imperative that decisions on dividing the pie be as balanced as possible.

The other huge COVID-19-related priority will be liability protection. When the pandemic exploded a year ago, businesses of all kinds had to scramble to adapt, often in the face of confusing and contradictory guidance from the feds that seemed to change every week. Now, those businesses understandably want protection from lawsuits that might arise due to their COVID-19 response, and the Legislature looks poised to give it to them. Less clear is whether liability protection will be extended to nursing homes, who had the most daunting task of all — caring for Florida’s most COVID-19-vulnerable residents without being given adequate supplies of equipment, PPE, and staff — and are now worried that their caregivers will have to constantly look over their shoulder to make sure trial lawyers aren’t second-guessing their every action.

Indeed, COVID-19 is forcing the Legislature to reconsider how so many things are done in Florida. Legislation would broaden access for pharmacists to administer vaccinations, an important consideration in a state of 21 million people. In this age of remote everything, protecting internet privacy has become a top priority. Mental health resources, always stretched thin, have become so much more crucial to help people through a year of turmoil and disruption.

Amid legislative leaders’ push to expand school choice options again, public schools have to find some 87,000 kids who have remained absent from school amid the pandemic; an enrollment hit that could impact public school district budgets. The chronically woeful prison system is desperate for more guards, something that only money will solve.

Then, there are the legislative issues that would arise even without a pandemic — but even these will have to jockey for position when the agenda is filled with COVID-19-related topics. Things like further restrictions on vote-by-mail (a curious priority following Florida’s most trouble-free election in years); the Governor’s push to rein in protests; an attempt to abolish the once-every-20-years Constitution Revision Commission, which perhaps threatens the Legislature’s desire to be the only game in town; a push to eliminate no-fault auto insurance; and making our state more resilient to withstand the impacts of climate change.

But see, that last one — along with other long-standing environmental priorities like Everglades restoration and springs protection — require money. Lots of it. So, it all comes back to the overarching theme of the 2021 session:

COVD, COVID, COVID.

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