(The Center Square) – Less than four days into the Florida Legislature’s 60-day session, both chambers are poised to pass significant slates of legislation.
Senate committees have already advanced school choice expansions, an ‘e-fairness’ bill and liability protections for farmers to the chamber floor where they could pass them as soon as next week.
The House, meanwhile, will debate and likely adopt its COVID-19 liability bill on Friday, fast-tracking the measure to the Senate where a companion bill is one hearing away from a floor vote.
Senate school choice: The Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday cleared Senate Bill 48 in a partisan 11-8 vote, securing the third panel endorsements necessary for a chamber floor vote.
“School choice is here to stay,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. “This comprehensive school choice legislation removes barriers that exist under some of our current programs by enabling children to start out in the school their parents think is best.
The 158-page bill would merge five voucher plans that pay for 160,000 K-12 students to attend more than 1,800 private schools into two programs while creating education savings accounts (ESAs) averaging $7,400 per student for participating families.
Under SB 48, families can spend voucher allocations through ESAs to pay for electronic devices, curriculum, part-time tutoring programs, educational supplies, equipment and therapies that insurance programs do not cover.
SB 48 also proposes that state funding for vouchers, now 95 percent of public school per-pupil allocations, be increased to 97.5 percent.
During Thursday’s two-hour hearing, Democrats reiterated concerns about how the expansion will affect traditional public schools, noting state economists issued a Wednesday report that calculated taxpayers would be contributing $6.6 billion annually to the school choice vouchers in five years.
“If we infused our public schools with the money we’ve given to voucher schools, we could ensure every child gets the best public education possible,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville. “It’s our duty to make sure everyone gets the best education possible, not choosing winners and losers.”
A House companion has not emerged, although Diaz said House Education & Employment Committee Chair Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, will file a chamber bill soon.
House COVID-19 bill: The House will likely adopt House Bill 7 Friday and move the package to the Senate, where a companion bill, SB 72, is one hearing away from a chamber vote.
Drafted from model legislation developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), HB 7/SB 72 extend COVID-19 protections to businesses, schools, nonprofits and religious institutions that make “good-faith efforts” to follow government health guidelines.
Under the bills, liability protections would apply retroactively and plaintiffs would be required to obtain affidavits from physicians attesting defendants’ acts or omissions caused damages, injuries or deaths. Businesses that have “substantially” complied with government health guidance would be immune from liability under SB 72/HB 7.
During a Thursday House floor debate, supporters warned an avalanche of litigation awaits businesses unless lawmakers act.
“We don’t want frivolous lawsuits affecting our businesses, adding another layer of uncertainty on them,” said HB 7 sponsor Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover.
Seven Democrat-filed amendments were rejected, including a proposal by Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, to give police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and teachers protections from COVID-19 while on the job.
Senate ‘e-fairness’: The Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday advanced SB 50, which would mandate online retailers remit the state’s 6-percent sales tax. It could be adopted by the chamber next week.
SB 50, sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, advanced 18-0, its third unanimous committee endorsement. House companion, HB 15, filed by Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, has not been heard.
SB 50/HB 15 would mandate online retailers that sell at least 200 items or $100,000 worth of items remit sales tax. Florida and Missouri are the only two states that haven’t adjusted statutes after 2018’s South Dakota v. Wayfair Supreme Court ruling allowed states to collect sales taxes from online retailers.
State economists calculate adopting SB 50 would boost tax revenues next year by $973.6 million, including $229.5 million for local governments, and $1.08 billion annually afterward, including $253.7 million for local governments.
Senate agricultural liability protections: The Senate is also set to vote on a bill granting agricultural operations protections from “nuisance” lawsuits.
The Senate Rules Committee Thursday advanced SB 88, sponsored by Sen. Jason Brodeur‘, R-Sanford, in a 14-2 vote, securing its third panel endorsement and path to Senate approval as early as next week.
SB 88 would restrict the types of civil lawsuits based on farming activities that can be filed against agricultural businesses, require plaintiffs prove noncompliance with state or federal requirements and limit who may file lawsuits against farmers.