Virus Outbreak Florida

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gestures during a news conference Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute in Tampa, Fla.

(The Center Square) – With November’s elections strengthening Republicans’ grip on the Florida Legislature, conservative priorities are being fast-tracked through preliminary committee hearings before the legislative session begins March 2.

Among the bills reflecting those urgencies are House Bill 7, filed by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, and Senate Bill 72, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. Each provide COVID-19 liability exemptions for businesses. HB 7 already has passed through one committee, and SB 72 goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

In addition to COVID-19 liability, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor support the accelerated review of the Combating Public Disorder Act, filed by Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, in the Senate and Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, R-Miami-Dade, in the House.

The proposed anti-mob legislation, first outlined by Gov. Ron DeSantis during police brutality protests across the nation over the summer, gets its first formal hearing Wednesday before the House Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee.

DeSantis, meanwhile, told the Texas Public Policy Foundation last week his “most important legislative issue” in 2021 is clipping “Big Tech’s” perceived censorship of conservative free speech.

In response, Burgess filed Senate Bill 520, which would require social media websites to provide notice if a user’s account is disabled with some recourse available to restore the account. The bill has not been scheduled for a first committee hearing but is expected to soon appear on dockets.

Providing COVID-19 liability protections, cracking down on violent protesters and curbing alleged censorship by social media websites may be top priorities for the state GOP leadership, but they aren’t primary concerns for Floridians.

A survey of 600 voters from Jan. 7-10 conducted by EMC Research’s Orlando pollsters said Floridians believe the Florida Legislature’s top two priorities should be helping families that are financially struggling because of the pandemic and overhauling the state’s unemployment system.

According to the survey, 84% of respondents said state lawmakers should provide pandemic financial assistance to families during the session, with 62% saying doing so is “very important.”

EMC reported 83% said the second-highest priority for lawmakers should be boosting unemployment protections for people who’ve lost jobs because of COVID-19, with 63% claiming it was “very important.”

Florida’s unemployment system, which offers the nation’s lowest weekly benefit ($275) and shortest eligibility span (12 weeks), already was under fire when it collapsed in March, leaving hundreds of thousands unemployed Floridians waiting weeks for benefit checks.

Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, has introduced Senate Bill 592, one of three Senate bills seeking to “modernize and revamp” Florida’s unemployment system. Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, has sponsored a House companion, House Bill 207. Both seek to expand the benefit to $500 weekly for up to 26 weeks. Neither has been scheduled for a hearing.

In comparison, 53% of EMC survey respondents expressed support for COVID-19 liability protections, with 32% rating the issue important.

Support for the anti-mob bill is not directly documented in the survey, but 54% of respondents favored initiatives in funding local police budgets that the legislation specifically precludes.

In response to a survey question regarding support for “protecting our constitutional right to free assembly and free speech by legally protesting without fear of criminal charges,” 90% considered it important, with 71% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans deeming it a top priority, EMC said.

Also in the survey, 77% of respondents want Florida lawmakers to stop chipping away at their right to amend the state constitution through citizens’ initiatives, and 71%, including 64% of Republicans, demand the Legislature implement the minimum wage ballot measure as approved by voters in November.